Tuesday, December 28, 2010


a sermon, delivered 12/19/10, at the UU Church of Lexington, KY

UUCL Manger 2009

A “you tube” video has gone “viral” on the internet. If you want to see it, look up “flash mob/Hallelujah chorus.” In it, people who look like normal schmucks eating lunch in a mall food court (it was in Canada, but it could have been Anywhere, NA) begin to stand, one by one and then two by two, and sing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Soon, to the astonishment and delight of the unassuming fellow-diners, a full scale performance is underway. Silas House, a local artist, posted it with the warning: You will cry. Being a non-cryer, I took the dare. It was touching… but, why?

Flash mobs started in 2003, created by an artist who wanted to disrupt and challenge the conventions with which we trudge through our days. By having dozens, even hundreds of people show up at a preordained location (often a store or commercial enterprise, so there will be onlookers) the “mob” surprises, delights, and sometimes shocks those present. The extraordinary breaks into the ordinary. This is art.

Art is not the imitation of life, but the replication and refinement, the interpretation and highlighting of what is beautiful, horrifying, moving, and inspiring. Art takes the events and the materials of “real” life as well as of the artists’ imaginations and makes them accessible to the masses. In literature, music, painting, photography, drama, and film, those who are the artists bring our own lives to us, so that we may cherish them, question them, comprehend them. Art has existed and shall exist as long as there are human minds and human spirits.

Humans have always been afraid. From the dawn of civilization, we feared annihilation. We still do. What now threatens us is the potential for mass destruction by nuclear disaster or natural demise of all we know through climate change and other ecological scenarios. What once triggered apprehension and terror was the winding down of the year, the growing darkness, the fallow fields, the barren storehouses of winter. In either case, humans need comfort, and hope.

Art provides that.

The story of Christmas, told long before the birth of Jesus, is story of light into darkness, life in spite of death, goodness over evil, and plenty instead of want. Told time and again, featuring earlier gods, the birth of the sun (who became the “son”) and his many avatars, it is really the story of how humans continue to find solace, joy and even mirth in spite of a future that is as grim now as ever.

When the flash mob materialized in that food court, I thought, being not only a non-cryer but a long time mall-hater, all that’s needed is for them to start flipping the tables over to symbolize Jesus’ rejection of the greed and materialism he stood against. Instead, they resumed eating, strolling, and chatting. But the symbol of the setting was not lost on me: the mall, with its glitter, bad food, and excess packaging was a perfect place to set art against artifice. Artifice is fake, phony, and tricky ways of suggesting or imitating a phenomenon. When we can’t have art, we accept artifice. But what we long for is art.

Exchange student Anke & Seth w/ family nativity 2008

The Hallelujah chorus is art; so is Chartres cathedral, the Nutcracker ballet, the iconic paintings of Madonna and child, the simple arrangement of greens inside, the scene painted by mother nature of a snow-covered countryside offset by one red cardinal. The tableau, enacted over and over throughout Christendom, of humble shepherds and lowly animals kneeling at the rude birthplace of a still anonymous child, of magi/wise men traveling throughout the night to fulfill a prophecy, of parents posed in adoration of their infant, is art because it enshrines some of the most noble and lasting sentiments of humanity: hope, nurture, equality, charity, generosity, community, perseverance. It brings together animals and humans, the lowest and most exalted trading places, the whole hierarchy turned upside down. It can, if we strip away the layers of theology and dogma that have been overlaid through centuries, still move the human heart.

In the very funny and delightful book, An Atheist’s guide to Christmas, one writer, Emery Emery, tells of how he hated Christmas because it was also his birthday, and it therefore ruined both every year. His grandmother made him a cake shaped like Santa’s face, and he reports: I especially enjoyed the santa cake because I was allowed to take a knife to good ol’ Saint Nick. There was a cathartic quality to it. I don’t remember any Jesus cakes, but that would have been nice as well. Later in the essay, he reports that while relatives were bringing gifts labeled “Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday,” I was sitting quietly next to the tree, attacking the manger with GI Joe, a commonly held practice of mine.

I think too many of us have confused art with artifice at the holiday season. I also think there are too many people attacking the manger, if not with GI Joe (although that is happening as we speak) then with reason, intellect, and cynicism. If your childhood birthdays, holidays, religion or lack thereof was wanting, then disparaging or dismissing the value of others’ beliefs, hopes, and aspirations is not the way to heal.

What almost but not quite made me cry at the You Tube video was the way the people who sang emerged from the ordinary, eating, talking on cell phone, picking up trash. I think within each of us is an artist, waiting to sing, to dance, to help someone, to create something lasting and lovely, to listen, to share, to honor humanity in our own unique way. That is the art of Christmas.. and will last. All else shall fall away, or change. So may it be. Forever, and ever, Hallelujah!