The Light of the First Candle

An Advent Sermon

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
November 25, 2001

These are the words of Marcellus in the first act of Hamlet:

"Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time."
Wm. Shakespeare: Hamlet, I.i

Ah, yes. Would that Marcellus's words were to become true. But of course we know this Advent and Christmas business is all nonsense - at least as far as you and I are concerned. We're Unitarian Universalists. We don't believe in angels. We know that virgin births are unlikely. In fact, we seriously question the authenticity of the whole story in general. We also suspect there was no "star in the east" unless it was some comet that happened to be seen at that time. So why all the fuss? Or to put it in different fashion, "Why all the "chutzpah" about Christmas?" After all, the baby who was born and grew to be a man . . . died. He didn't rise bodily from the dead after sacrificing his life for a principle he held more precious than life. We don't worship him as a god. What IS all this?

This morning I would like to spend a little while reviewing some of the reasons people get "all het up" over this Christmas myth every year. I'd like to investigate some of the parallels in religious history. Then I'd like to suggest some of the reasons why the season we call Advent and the things we do during the time approaching the celebration of the nativity of Jesus are perfectly natural ways of expressing what it means to be human.

If one were to choose a text on this first Sunday in Advent, it would most likely come from the Old Testament book of Isaiah in which the prophet says, "Prepare Ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." (Isaiah 40:3b) That would be the traditional way to begin the season.

There is another text that we might very well consider to replace the ancient theme in Isaiah. It was the motto of the Epicureans and it said, in so many words, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die."

Now why would I suggest such an openly selfish theme? Well, it has to do with a trio of celebrations which happen to occur throughout the world this time of year. One is the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, a topic I want to discuss in a couple of weeks; another is the old Roman Saturnalia and the third is Advent.

The ancient Greeks were not far wrong in the way they described one philosophical approach to the human condition. A person who might describe herself as an existentialist in this day and age would understand. You see, existentialist philosophy lives in the world of the "now". An appropriate motto for such an approach might be "Carpe diem!" (Sieze the day!) Make the most of the life you've been given. To find authenticity in life one is called to fully live, paying attention, going the distance.

So the Epicureans and the Existentialists might agree on one thing. Though worlds apart in their reasons, they certainly would set out to enjoy the physical aspects of life - eating, drinking, singing, dancing, lovemaking, celebrating in any way possible BECAUSE the "Grim Reaper" might just come upon one unexpectantly.

Millenia ago people acted out much of the way they believed. By social compact, people came together and agreed to have a celebration that lasted seven days. It was what you might call a feast to end all feasts. It was called the Saturnalia. During that time in ancient Rome the "lid was off" so to speak.

It was nothing more, however, than another way of observing the turning of the year from autumn into winter. Presents of waxen fruit, candles and dolls were given and received. But the usual way of life was suspended. During the Saturnalia,
–no punishments were handed down by the courts;
–schools were closed;
–war making ceased;
–the toga was replaced by more celebrative garments;
–masquerading and changes of dress between the sexes occurred;
–social distinctions were NOT observed and, in many cases, masters served slaves; but most emphatically,
–speech, action, insult and tomfoolery went unbridled.

The Saturnalia was a fertility celebration. It was a religious way of "whistling in the dark" to insure that the rotations of the seasons would turn the sun northward again so that spring time would come. Then something came along to spoil it all. Enter - "Organized Religion". (Boo! Hiss!)

The early Christians used to run about in masks ridiculing the pagan superstitions of their time. They were the precursors of today's fundamentalists who say their answer is the ONLY answer to what's religious.

(As an aside I am reminded of the score of summer institutes where Unitarian Universalists gather and, late in the night, begin to sing some of the old gospel songs. Hymns they would never DREAM of singing in church are sung loudly and lustily in such a setting. Interesting.)

A few decades went by, maybe as many as a couple of hundred years until a sort of metamorphosis came about. The celebration became more formal; more reserved; more controlled. What a pity. All that innocent fun had its entire purpose explained away. More to the point, the Christians were not the only ones to invent virgin births and other miraculous happenings. Not at all. They were not even the first.

The dictionary defines Advent as "a coming; an approach; a visitation." In many religions of the world there are examples of prophecies that foretold of the coming of saviours, of avatars, messiahs, redeemers, and virgin-born gods. In times of need the people always look beyond themselves for leadership.

(There is no doubt that some of the uneasy feelings a goodly proportion of our country felt in regard to George W. Bush after the endless Florida election hassle went to ground in the face of the September 11th tragedy.)

We know, then, that political and military leaders are possible only because they are there to respond to the expectations that exist in the minds of the people. When their leadership meets those needs there has been a tendency throughout history to want almost to "deify" said leader; to believe that he or she was divinely inspired. A good example of this is the musical fantasy that took Broadway by storm about the wife of dictator Juan Peron in Argentine - Evita Peron.

Imagine yourself a devotee' of this or that cult. The needs of humanity can only be met by following your particular creed or belief system. All others are false or imitations. Osama bin Laden has done precisely this in trying to steal classical Islam from the multitudes by calling for a holy war against all who are not fundamentalist Islamists.

So if one takes a broader view of history, one finds that contending religious groups were continually engaged in similar behavior. The actions are similar. Only the geography is different. The Muslim says "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah!" The Christian says "The only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ". In the case of extremists such as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Billy Graham's son, the Muslim faith is a "terrorist faith". For Osama all Americans should die because they pollute purified Islam.
So it goes.

There are other ancient patterns that reflect humanity's concerns. Hinduism, the oldest living religion gives an early insight into the meaning of Advent. In Hinduism there is not the expectation and promise of ONE great leader but a whole series of them. These are referred to as "avatars", gods in bodily form descending to the earth to assist humankind.

Lord Krisna, the eighth and greatest of the avatars says in the Bhagavad Gita:

"When righteousness declines; when wickedness is strong, I rise; take visible form. Whensoever the law fails and lawlessness uprises; then do I bring myself to bodied birth."
(Lesson the Fourth)

Chinese scripture contains a number of such prophecies:
"The Holy One, when He comes, will unite in Himself all the virtues of heaven and earth; by His justice the world will be established in righteousness; He will labor and suffer much and will finally offer up a sacrifice worth of himself."

In Persia, (now called Iraq), Zoroaster declared that
A virgin should conceive and bear a son, and a star would appear blazing at mid-day to signal the occurrence. When you behold the star, follow it wheresoever it leads you. Adore the mysterious child, offering him gifts with profound humility. He is indeed the Almighty Word which created the heavens. He is, indeed, your Lord and Everlasting King."

Further study in Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough revealed that in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mexico, Arabia - the same stories are repeated indicating that same spirit of prophetic expectation. There is evidence that mythical qualities of strength and wisdom were attributed to ordinary mortals. For instance, it was said of Plato that "He was born of Paretonia, then begotten of Apollo and NOT Ariston, his earthly father." Pythias, mother of Pythagoras, was conceived by a ghost of the god Apollo. Zoraster was supposed to have been born of an immaculate conception by a ray of light from Divine Reason. Listen to the poetic description of the immaculate conception of Juno, the Greek goddess: "Juno touched the flower; its wondrous virtues such, she touched it, and grew pregnant at the touch; then entered Thrace - the propontic shore; when mistress of her touch, God Mars she bore."

So, then, as we begin the season of Advent there are three basic principles to bear in mind at this time of the year. We have to admit that there are many religions that expect a leader to come and save the people. We also have to recognize the tendency of people to deify leadership. And we need to bear in mind that there is a universal value at work in religion. Human beings will inevitably create symbols to point beyond the everyday. Or, as my professor of world religions, Dr. Max Kapp once said, "No religion ever came into being except in response to a human condition that was not being served by the existent religion of that time."

Today it would seem to me that we share many of the same values. We still hope. We still look beyond ourselves for worthy leadership in times of distress. In the ancient symbols of joy, peace and goodwill that will come in the season of renewal, we can use the Christmas legends to assist us to a little more hope and a little less doubt in this changing, turbulent world.

As we have lit the first candle today in Expectation of the season, so, too, over the next three Sundays will we light candles that symbolize Peace, Joy and Love. This Advent season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas will be a time in which to get our hearts in tune; to take time to sit silently, to meditate, to pray, to look up at the stars and to listen if only for a while, to hear the angels' song.