The still point and the work of Christmas

The still point and the work of Christmas

Joy and celebration are worthy of the time we spend on them. The small moment of the candle being lit while singing ‘Silent Night’ is that important.

Photograph of a cat in the lap of a person with a laptop, Christmas decorations in background.

© cedwardmoran (CC BY 2.0)

© cedwardmoran (CC BY 2.0)


My cat Dewey helps me with my sermon writing. If you have a cat or a dog, you probably have been in the same situation. I’ve settled down with my laptop on the couch to write, and he’s followed me from his comfortable perch nestled on my pillow. He jumps up on the couch, looks at me. Purrs. Rubs up next to me. Pauses to paw at my arm to show me exactly how it’s done. Focused as I am, I absently give him some attention, but it’s not enough. He’s now up on the laptop, crawling up my chest, and planting his body in my face.

If you’re a pet-lover, you just have to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. This little ball of life has got you by the face and is reminding you life is happening right now, right here, and it’s not going anywhere just yet.

T.S. Eliot has a passage in “Burnt Norton,” the first of “The Four Quartets,” that approaches this same lesson from a different angle.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that Eliot is referencing a cat somewhere between arrest, movement, ascent, and decline, even if the image of not “calling it fixity” is very apt. (His cat poems come later.) Rather, life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention. Eliot’s “still point” is the lack of motion within every motion.

Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this moment, too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur, though? In some great, exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty stable, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.

One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the winter holidays and holy days relates to this. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas party or a church pageant, all the logistical bits: the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be a means of intentionally remembering that for this short holiday event, we should be fully present. Joy and celebration are worthy of the time we spend on them. What happens in the small moment of the candle being lit while singing “Silent Night” is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all the effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.

We can return to such moments between the moments (as T.S. Eliot also writes) for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school, knows the difference between rest and renewal. The still point is our place of renewal, where we stop so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.

The Rev. Howard Thurman wrote, “When the song of the angels is stilled, / When the star in the sky is gone, / . . . The work of Christmas begins.” In the holiday season we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.

We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can be. The religious call asks that we begin again doing the work of Christmas, striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place. The work of Christmas isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating at Christmas—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The resolution for us as religious people is to figure out how to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and those in prison (or reduce the need for so many people in prison), to shelter the homeless. If we do that work, the rest will follow.

The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever we feel we’re lacking, that in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the work of Christmas as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront, is not essential to who we are. They are what keep us from ourselves, not what actually define us.

Mystically, T.S. Eliot’s “still point” echoes this. “Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The moment in the stable is the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we remember to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—and this is the moment that informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend them. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.

This essay is adapted from a sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, December 30, 2012.

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