The Reverend Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Minister

"In Ways Unexpected"

A Christmas Eve Homily by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull

First Parish Unitarian Universalist
Cohasset, MA
Decamber 24, 2008

In ways unexpected, Christmas comes. A young woman, at full term in her pregnancy, and a young man, seemingly her husband, made their way from the village of Nazareth to the city of Bethlehem, that he might pay his taxes. These were the years of Roman occupation. Commoners like Mary and Joseph did what the authorities told them to do. They were young, probably teenagers, and not even married. Yet they traveled together, he surely the father of the baby she was carrying.

As babies will, this one wriggled and squirmed and wanted out at the most inconvenient of times. Night was falling. Where would they rest, that she might give birth? All the inns of Bethlehem were full. Contractions were coming with alarming frequency, and they knocked on the door of yet another innkeeper, desperate for shelter. Not lacking hospitality altogether, this innkeeper directed them to a stable out back, a barn. And there, Mary gave birth to Jesus.

All the while, an angelic host was busy preparing a message—not for the media of the day, but for some raggedy band of shepherds far more attentive to their sheep than to the night sky. Legend tells us that the lead angel diverted their attention. After scaring the wits out of them, she sang a calming carol bidding them not to be afraid, but to make their way toward Bethlehem, the city of David, and to seek out a stable, where they would find the babe.

When I read as a child that the shepherds did indeed leave their sheep and journeyed without a second thought to Bethlehem and the stable, where they “found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger,” I wondered. How could Mary and Joseph and their new baby squeeze themselves into one small manger?” Well, I figured it out after reviewing a few illustrations of how it might have happened. I didn’t learn about funny syntax for many years, let alone confusing translations. It was enough though that the angels sang, that the shepherds went, and that this beautiful little baby was born in a barn and laid in a space where the animal inhabitants were accustomed to finding their sustenance.

Of course the shepherds couldn’t hold onto this news, so Luke, author of what we know as the Gospel—the good news—according to Luke, tells us that the shepherds spread the word of this birth, the birth of a hoped for Savior, who would presumably save his people from all the ills that had befallen them. Here at long last was the Messiah.

What a beginning for a story that was to unfold just as strangely!

Christmas comes in ways unexpected. Children arrive at times unexpected. It’s not about convenience. The miracles of birth rarely are.

Then there’s that star story, told surely by star struck story tellers. We who are reasoned are dubious. Perhaps some “super nova appeared in the heavens in its dying burst of fire.” We rationalize. Yet the star story tugs at us.

Christmas comes in ways unexpected. “Why not a star!” suggests Margaret Gooding, moving beyond her early belief and her later rationality. Why not?

“Some bright star shines somewhere in the heavens each time a child is born….Who knows what uncommon life may yet unfold, if we but give it a chance!”

Who knows? Perhaps the uncommon life of the Scovel children, millennia later, freezing in the Beacon Hill parsonage of their father, Carl, a Unitarian minister infused with more than his share of Puritanical scrimping on the heating bill. Who knew that his uncommonly imaginative children would plan a kidnapping of sorts, with a ransom ensured to warm their small shivering bodies?

Word came to their father, the esteemed pastor of the esteemed King’s Chapel, that the baby Jesus, in the form of the beloved doll in the Christmas crèche, was missing. “Uh-oh, what demented mind would run off with the baby Jesus?” he mused, unamused.

Christmas comes in ways unexpected. Carl was still learning about Christmas and children. With the ransom note found and the heat turned up came the epiphany brought home by his own uncommon children. Of course, of course, “No monarch, indeed no despot [myself even], can ever be so sure of his rule after a child has been born.”

Expand your geographical vision to the Nebraska plains on a harsh winter’s night many years ago. A lonely little girl named Betty hadn’t been asked if she agreed to her family pulling up stakes in Ohio and heading west as homesteaders. Christmas was coming and in spite of Betty’s longing for friends left behind, it seemed to be the best of Christmas gifts when a new family moved in across the way, with a daughter just her age. Then came the discovery that her new friend, Sarah, was Jewish. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, but lit candles on a glorious candlestick known as a menorah for a festival of lights known as Hanukkah.

All the while, Betty’s father was traveling into town—many miles away—to get candles for the tree. A plains blizzard came on, and he was not to return until dawn on Christmas morning. Christmas came in ways unexpected, for the lights that brought him home were those of the candles of Hanukkah burning bright in the window of their new neighbors, placed there by Betty’s friend, Sarah. Hanukkah had saved Christmas.

Holidays and holy days happen in ways unexpected. Children are born beyond our imagining. Children grow up in ways unanticipated and never cease to surprise us by means we surely couldn’t have taught them. Lights shine from sources unplanned and unanticipated, and the flame of candles from traditions of holiness over which nations have gone to war shine also in uncommon beams that bring us home to our common humanity.

In this time of anxiety, in this time of bewilderment, in this time of injury and illness for so many in our midst, in this time of violence among and within nations, in this time of mistrust between neighbor and neighbor, in this time when we would seem to do well simply to tend our sheep on our very own hillside thank you very much, we need more than ever to heed the echo of an angelic host. We need more than ever to warm our hearth and that of neighbors who can’t afford the heating bill altogether. We need more than ever to make friends beyond the conventions of sameness. We need more than ever to discover behind the façade of an inn a newborn child.

Ordinary miracles all, I invite you to trust that as we gather in this time and space of love and light and story and song, Christmas will come. Christmas is coming in ways unexpected, in ways we could never have imagined, tonight!



Betty Girling, “Holiday Candles,” in Treasured Stories of Christmas: A Touching Collection of Stories that Brings Gifts from the Heart and Joy to the Soul, The Editors of Guideposts, Inspirational Press, New York, 1997.

Margaret Gooding, “Why Not a Star,” in Singing the Living Tradition, The Unitarian Universalist Association, Beacon Press, Boston, 1993, 621.

The Gospel According to Luke in the Bible (King James Version)

Carl Scovel, “The Stolen Infant,” in Never Far from Home: Stories from the Radio Pulpit, Skinner House, Boston, October 2003, 44-46.


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