Let’s imagine together.
It is a cold night as you bundle up in a winter coat, or maybe a thick comforter, with layers of socks under your shoes, and mittens on your hands. You may be alone, or you may be with someone else; let’s imagine your favorite person is also bundling up like you are.
You go outside into the cold clear night… grateful that in our imaginings we don’t live near city lights or suburban haze… you shiver, and your companion teasingly grumbles ‘why couldn’t this happen on August first?’… but you don’t go back inside; rather, you look up and around…and there, suddenly, a hint of something glowing… it seems to grow longer … you expect it to disappear like a shooting star, but the tail remains…
“There it is!” you exclaim, pointing emphatically at the sky. Your companion looks and exclaims “Wow!”… and you begin talking excitedly about Comet ISON, describing it to each other, remarking at how it was expected to fall apart as it neared the sun, and how miraculous it is that this ball of ice made it out the other side so we could be witness to this amazing astronomical event.
I was prepared to talk about how sad it was that the reemergence of this comet was a fiction, but as of this morning, it appears that traces of ISON have made it to the other side of the sun. I don’t know about you, but I get a little rush thinking that this zombie comet is headed back our way in some form or another.
We know a lot about comets: they are essentially big balls of ice with long orbits that get lit up as they whoosh close to a star like our sun. But that doesn’t make them any less exciting; some of you may be old enough to remember Halley’s Comet – not to be confused with Haley’s Comets, who taught us to “Rock Around the Clock.” There is always a big flurry of anticipation as the comet returns, like clockwork, every 76 years. The news is filled with places to see it, what to look for, and of course trivia about it – like how Mark Twain’s life was framed by the cycle of Halley’s Comet. It seems that comets get more press than other astronomical events – maybe because of their infrequency, or maybe because they are so unusual.
But despite all we know from science and media hype, the moment the comet appears in the night sky, we are filled with a sense of wonder and awe.
Comet ISON isn’t the only wondrous event this week. Thanks to a quirk of the calendars, Hanukkah began on Thanksgiving Eve, the last time that will happen for millennia – if Thanksgiving still exists by then, of course.
Hanukkah – or the festival of lights – is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the end of the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem a few centuries before the Common Era. That the Jewish people triumphed is worthy of celebration, but what we remember is the miraculous story of the oil; because of the wars, all but one day’s worth of sacred oil was left at the temple, but thanks to a miracle, it lasted for eight– long enough for new oil to be pressed and made ready.
But that’s not all. Along with a comet and Hanukkah, Advent begins. In the Christian tradition, Advent marks the time leading up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus that we call Christmas.
The facts are fairly ordinary. Just over two thousand years ago, a baby is born to a Jewish couple who had not yet wed. This child grows up to say things so astonishing that millions of people remember them – and are living their lives by them – today. That this baby grew up to be a man preaching radical love is worthy of celebration, but what we remember is the miracle of his birth; because of the political and economic circumstances, this little baby – who would grow up to be called by some the Messiah – was born, thanks to a miracle, to a young unwed mother in a stable in Bethlehem.
Two miraculous stories that depend on belief in the miraculous. Falling on a weekend when the miraculous has occurred in our solar system.
Many of you now may have set your jaws firm, bristling at the word ‘miracle.’ Surely Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in miracles… do we?
It’s a good question. Do we?
Our fourth principle promotes the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We pride ourselves on using reason and the scientific method to discern truth for ourselves. It is in our DNA, namely in this passage from 19th century minister William Ellery Channing in his foundational sermon “Unitarian Christianity”:
We object strongly to the contemptuous manner in which human reason is often spoken of by our adversaries, because it leads, we believe, to universal skepticism. If reason be so dreadfully darkened by the fall, that its most decisive judgments on religion are unworthy of trust, then Christianity, and even natural theology, must be abandoned; for the existence and veracity of God, and the divine original of Christianity, are conclusions of reason, and must stand or fall with it.
However you identify within the theological spectrum, Channing’s assertion aligns with our fourth principle.
But Channing goes on…
If revelation be at war with this faculty, it subverts itself, for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason. It is worthy of remark, how nearly the bigot and the skeptic approach. Both would annihilate our confidence in our faculties, and both throw doubt and confusion over every truth. We honor revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers.
In other words, and less theistically than Channing, reason is the means that the universe, or spirit, or biology, has given us to understand the revelation of truth in art, sacred texts, history, and nature.
The revelation is the thing. The moment of understanding. The epiphany. The amazement. The wonder. Those who know a little about Zen Buddhism know the concept of the “beginner’s mind” – that attitude of openness and eagerness and lack of preconceptions. No matter where we are in our intellectual journey on a subject – no matter how far reason has taken us – at some point we must stop, be still, and let go – and let revelation take over.
That to me is a miracle.
Of course, being creatures of reason, we know that science and history can now explain many things our ancestors called miracles. Certainly much of ancient mythology explains natural phenomena. The ancient Greek story of Icharus explains solar eclipses. The ancient Iroquois story of Adekagagwaa explains the seasons. The old Norse story of Thor explains thunder.
Other ancient stories tell of how nature was “interrupted” by supernatural forces; a miracle foretold by Ichadon in Korea brought Buddhism to his country. The Sufi mystics are said to perform miracles of invisibility and taming animals. In Judaism, Elisha was deemed a miracle worker, and the oil did last for eight nights. And there are multiple miracles ascribed to Jesus – from turning water into wine, to healing the sick and raising the dead, to feeding the multitudes.
But all of these miracles are ancient and easily explained by science, history, and the construct of human storytelling. All of the mystery is taken out, and we are left like a six-year old child on the playground whose friends just revealed the truth of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.
It’s not that we don’t appreciate the facts; we do. But if we let the facts shut the door on the mystery inherent in the stories of miracles, we might be missing something – something we enjoyed as children – something we enjoyed as we imagined watching for Comet ISON.
The mystery is actually everywhere, if we are only willing to see it. Miracles may be happening all the time, but we don’t recognize them as such because we know too much.
And this is where the childlike aspect of wonder comes in.
Now I want to be clear – I’m not suggesting that we become children. There’s a wonderful story about Martin Luther, who unintentionally touched off the Reformation by saying to Rome “ein minute, bitte,” then translated the Bible into the vernacular and made sure it was disseminated around the country. In his travels, he encountered a small village that set him to scratching his head. As he entered, he saw that all the shops and businesses were closed, and everyone – from the smallest toddler to the oldest octogenarian – was playing with balls and dolls, skipping rope, and running around seemingly without a care. When Luther asked what was going on, the local vicar explained what a revelation the translation had been, and they were following Jesus’s instruction in the Gospel of Matthew, where he is quoted as saying “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
No, I am talking about some much less irresponsible, but rather delightful, when I speak of childlike wonder.
I can best describe it with the story of when I was a teen, camping with my Girl Scout troop in northern Vermont. While we had pitched tents, the night was so warm and the sky was so clear, we opted to move our sleeping bags outside and lie underneath a blanket of stars. I was in that twilight stage of sleep when my eye caught something green and shimmery in the sky. I sat up with a start, unsure of what was happening, but soon I was enveloped in the beauty of the northern lights, the waves of color sweeping overhead, so seemingly close that I could almost touch the velvety sheets of blue, green, and purple lights. The universe felt so close, and I was enchanted by wonder. As others saw it, we shared a moment of feeling at once infinitesimally small and at one with the universe.
The next morning, our leader explained in detail the scientific phenomenon we had witnessed – that the aurora borealis was nothing more than charged particles from the magnetosphere colliding with atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere, absorbing extra energy that is expressed as light. Some of my fellow Girl Scouts were dismayed to know it hadn’t been a miracle – their bubbles had been burst like the kid who found out Santa isn’t real.
But for me, knowing that this could happen in such spectacular array left me even more in awe. I still remember that moment and the feeling of childlike wonder – wonder that led me to learn more about astronomy, which led me to learn more about mythology and ancient cosmologies, which in a way led me here.
But it isn’t just scientific phenomena that evoke childlike wonder; it can be almost anything, big or small. You don’t have to see an event to be awed by it – perhaps it is a sound, like jingle bells around midnight on Christmas eve… or a touch, like your brother surprising you from behind as he returns early from war… or a smell, as you open the door to wafts of a still-baking apple pie … or a taste, like discovering a hint of mint in a Hershey’s kiss.
Sure, we may know intellectually that it’s our cousin playing with the bells, or our brother wanting to surprise us, or our roommate’s sudden impulse to bake, or simply our not paying attention to which chocolate we picked up. But it doesn’t make the moment any less special. In fact, it may be more special because we were caught off guard by something wonderful. Theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman encourages us to make room for these moments; he writes, “There must be always remaining in every life, some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathless and beautiful.”
It’s not hard to reclaim space for childlike wonder. It takes a little something like trust… or hopefulness… I call it faith. Faith in what? That’s up to you. But faith in something allows us to let go a little and trust the moment, even when we don’t know what the moment will bring. Faith lets us experience – with joy – the excitement of anticipation, the element of surprise, the appearance of the unexpected, the seeming impossibility of its happening. Even when we know the truth behind the stories, faith lets us lean a little into the wondrous.
Like the stories of miracles we find throughout the world’s religions.
We tell the stories of Christmas and Hanukkah in our congregations not because we expect people to believe the miraculous events actually happened. We tell the stories in our congregations to remind each other of the joy of childlike wonder… that the impossible may be possible… that we can see things in our imaginings if we open ourselves up… that amid our reason is revelation… that mystery is not a vice… that despite all we know there is still room for joy, and hope, and faith.
That we are willing to live our lives open to possibility, and mystery, and awe, and childlike wonder?
That’s the miracle.