Simple Gifts

Rev. Fiona Heath         Presented December 19th, 2021

I am trying my best to get into the holiday spirit: we put the tree up right at the beginning of December, we’ve already drunk the eggnog and listened to Lena Horne singing Jingle Bells. I’ve watched the Hallmark Christmas movies and enjoyed the Festive Cheer box treats.

It’s already been Christmas for three weeks in my house and I’m still not feeling it, no matter how many times I hear Nat King Cole sing Chestnuts Roasting by the Open Fire.

And I like Christmas, I enjoy this special time out of time with spiced gingerbread and the scent of spruce trees and family visits and the giving of gifts.

Many people adore this holiday time, others simply cope and sigh with relief when it’s over, some reshape it to suit their values, and for many it’s not a cultural norm at all.

For all of us, wherever we land on the Christmas appreciation scale, it’s been a very long long long year, and ending it with this new surge of the highly transmissible Omicron variant and additional restrictions is not just stressful but disheartening.

My heart has been dissed, anticipation replaced by concern. It’s hard to make merry and give gifts when we worry that just being with loved ones may spread illness and cause harm. This is a bad year to be me and a last minute shopper. And I missed the LCBO rapid test give away.

As I considered how despite all the trappings –  I’m just not feeling Christmas, I realized I am feeling winter solstice. The longest night is resonating with me in this longest year with this longest pandemic. My disheartened heart has been feeling like its winter solstice all month long.

The actual winter solstice is in two days when the northern pole of the planet will be furthest from the sun. On the night of December 21st here in the GTA there will be over fifteen hours of darkness. For us winter solstice marks the longest darkest night of the year, and also marks the beginning of the cold winter still to come.

Extended darkness, little light, winter is coming, that feels about right, right now.

The dark has been gathering, winter is coming, as we valiantly try to create a little festive cheer. There’s no denying nature.

But I realize this is good. I need winter solstice this year, a day to sit with the dark and let it be. To not deny it with lights and cheer and feasting, but to accept the quiet darkness.

In welcoming the dark that is as essential to life as the light, we learn to embrace, not fear, its depths. In the darkness lies our dreams, our hopes, our most secret wishes.  It’s the place that holds us close while we sleep. In dark earth our deepest roots are protected. In dark earth lies the seeds of the new year.

In darkness there are gifts waiting to be discovered.

The gift of rest, of letting go and simply being. Quietness and comfort surround us. There is time now to wander and wonder. Embracing the dark opens our spirits to restoration, to renewal.

I find myself ready for the dark night, ready to lay down my worries and fears. As 19th century Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it:

“You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything;
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! —
powers and people —

and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.”
The darkness pulls in everything, It is possible a great energy is moving near me.

The longest night offers us the gift of quiet peace and rest. A space to sense that great energy that surrounds us, that mysterious force that animates us all.

It gives me faith that I will once again feel that energy move through me, sparking the light within.

After the longest night, the light returns. Always.

&

We pause now for our time of contemplation. Today we are going to do a short movement meditation. This is just a free flow set of movements as we embrace the dark and the dark embraces us.

Please stand as you are able.  You can also adapt the movements to being seated. For those on zoom, you can turn your video off and find a space to move.

Lift your arms and face up to the night. Close your eyes and let the dark fall over you and into you.

Open your eyes, bring your arms wide and sweep them in as you wrap the darkness around you like a warm cloak.

Move your torso from side to side as the dark holds you close.

Release your arms and reach down to the dark earth below, steady and strong.

Come up and stand tall. Close your eyes and breathe, held by the dark above and below.

Warm, steady, strong.

Repeat once or twice more.

Bring your hands to your heart, thank the dark if you wish.

&

Now I said this service would be about simple gifts and instead I’ve spoken about solstice and darkness. But the Winter solstice gift of darkness is the gift I need. Quiet and comfort to ease my disheartened heart.

That is not to say I am not looking forward to the gifts under the tree next Saturday – next Saturday already!

In better times I like giving gifts – taking the time to find something that fits another person, the act of wrapping so the gift is a surprise until opened, the joy of offering it.

It’s always a risk, a worry that I might have gotten it wrong, and I have given my share of disappointing gifts.  But when it’s a good gift and the delight is clear, I feel such satisfaction.

And I like receiving gifts too – seeing what someone thought I might like. And it’s always a risk, a worry that my response might not be appreciative enough, that the gift might be so off base that it hurts a little. I’ve had my share of trying to be extra gracious.

Gift giving is an exchange – it’s a relational transaction that affirms bonds between people.

I care enough to think of you and bring you something unasked, unearned. I care enough to receive an unexpected gift with delight.

At Christmas gift giving can be a competitive sport, they spent this much so I have to match it. It can become a trading of commodities – the biggest or latest or most expensive.

A true gift, as author Lewis Hyde notes, establishes a feeling-bond between people. It strengthens the golden threads between people, builds up that sense of giving and receiving, an obligation to reciprocity.

This obligation to reciprocity is at the heart of gift giving. It’s an obligation arising out of the web of relationships, not a tit for tat exchange, or even a pay it forward thing, it is an obligation to keep on participating, keep on strengthening the threads by giving and receiving.

In a gift exchange culture, gifts are meant to move, to be given and given again. Your garden gives you strawberries, you make strawberry jam and give it to a friend. They make toast with strawberry jam for their grandchild. The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes. (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass)

Christmas at its best is a celebration of reciprocal generosity – the giving not just of gifts, but the sharing of food and laughter, playing games and singing together, the great gift of time and effort for those we love.

It doesn’t always turn out the way with that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it- traditions and sky high expectations of good behaviour of relatives we rarely see while we over indulge in too much rich food but underneath that pile of too much that we put on the holidays,

underneath all of that weighty mass of stuff,

underneath all of that lies the gifts of generosity and connection.

These are the gifts I think we secretly all hope to find in some way, some how, during this season. These gifts require an open heart to give and receive.

When a friend acts with such kind generosity that you have to take a breath. When there’s a shared smile and you feel understood for the first time that day. Watching the snow fall gently as the world hushes and you feel one with all the quiet peace.

These are the gifts we need now, more then ever. And I don’t know if I can muster up the openness of heart needed to find them this second pandemic Christmas, as worn out as I feel.

But I have faith.

Sitting with the quiet solstice dark is helping ease my heart open again. Being here with all of you always helps. I have faith I will find the spiritual gifts of generosity and connection, if only for a moment, in this strange once again pandemic’d holiday season.

And I know that these gifts aren’t only hidden in the pile under the Christmas tree. They can also be found in our everyday life where: “We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention…a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.” (Terri Wilding, https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2021/11/in-the-gift-giving-season.html)

UCM rests on gift exchange – all of you give of yourselves to create this chalice community – and I dearly hope that you all receive gifts back – friendship, community and activism. Connection and hope. Simple yet magnificent gifts that – in being shared over and over again – grow in value.

My hope is that each of us, in embracing the dark of solstice or through the festivities of Christmas, find our hearts opening, opening to the great simple gifts – generosity and connection.

May this chalice community help us always to open our tender hearts in tough times.

 

So Say We All.

 

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