Boxing Day: Midwinter Darkness – 26/12/21

Opening Music: ‘The Hollies and the Ivies’ by Marilisa Valtazanou

Opening Words: ‘In Celebration of the Winter Solstice’ by Stephanie Noble

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours.
There is magic in the darkness.

Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic. It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue, its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul, not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness, and each night we return
to the dreaming womb of our beginnings.

Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.

So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness. Here and now.
A time of richness. A time of joy.

Opening Words of Welcome:

These words by Stephanie Noble welcome all who have gathered here on Zoom this morning for our Boxing Day service of reading and carols. Welcome to regular members of the congregation, to friends old and new, and visitors who are with us for the first time – also those who might be listening to our podcast, or watching on YouTube, at some time in the future. For those who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and I’m Ministry Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians.

If you are here for the first time today – we’re especially glad to you have you with us – welcome! I hope you find something of what you need this morning – if you’re looking for a singalong you’re in the right place – please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to say hello. Or you might try coming to one of our various small-group gatherings to get to know us better. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come each Sunday – every single one of us has a part to play in co-creating this sacred space, this sense of community.

As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – it’s alright to keep your camera off if you’d rather – though it’s always nice to see your faces in the gallery view. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along but there’s no compulsion to do so. You can quietly lurk with our blessing – you know how to find us if you want to be in touch later.

This morning’s service will be a meditation on the darkness – a counterpoint to our Christmas Eve service celebrating the light – through readings and carols we’ll reflect on the nourishing, creative, transformative aspects of darkness which are perhaps overlooked and undervalued.

Chalice Lighting: ‘Room for the Darkness’ by Cliff Reed (adapted)

Before we go any further though, I’ll light our chalice, as we always do whenever we gather. This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.

This community is a fellowship of the progressive path –
open-minded, open-hearted – at least, that’s our aspiration.

This is a place to share insights and ideas,
a place to foster faith and sometimes find joy,
a place where we can be ourselves, and let others do the same.

But is there room for the darkness here,
the shadow beneath the chalice flame?
Is this a place where we can truly bring
our pain, our confusion, our despair?

Let us say that it is such a place,
a place for the whole of life’s experience,
as messy as that may be; a place for healing and solace.

And let us not just say that it is. Let us make it so.
As we face this life – in all its complex shadings – together.

Let’s have our first carol! And although we’ve already heard this one this morning, in medley form, from Marilisa, I reckon we should get a crack at singing this midwinter classic too: ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. All of our carols today are taken from recordings of our last few in-person carol services in 2017, 18, and 19 so please do excuse any rustling or coughing you might hear.

Carol: ‘The Holly and the Ivy’

The holly and the ivy, now they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet saviour
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words – in the spirit of prayer – about what it represents.

When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.

(candles – thank each person)

I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… all those little windows into our shared human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now.

Prayer: based on words by Maureen Killoran

You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you.

Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us.

Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
in whom we live and move and have our being.
As we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy presence within us and amongst us. (pause)

Spirit of Blessing, be with us, in the ordinariness of our days.

May hope’s light guard us and keep cynicism from our hearts.
May the energy of laughter build endurance for the tough times of our lives.
May creativity’s vision grant the possibility of seeing old relationships with new eyes.
May the oil of healing keep us from anger’s hardness or despair.
May the mantle of humility give us courage to admit when we are wrong.
May compassion’s loom weave in us the discipline to forgive.
May patience help us bear in mind that ours is not the only scale of time.
May the flame of justice be a beacon for the choices we must make.
May peace be ever in us and sustain us through these stressful days.

Spirit of Blessing, be with us, in the ordinariness of our days. (pause)

As we look back now over the past week, let us silently
give thanks for those joys and pleasures we have known:
moments of love, friendship and camaraderie,
experiences of wonder and delight; reassurance and relief,
bursts of playfulness, spontaneity and generosity,
feelings of achievement, creativity, and flow
all those times when we felt most alive and awake. (pause)

Let us also ask for the consolation, forgiveness, and guidance
we may need, as we acknowledge our sorrows and regrets:
times of loss, pain, anger, and fear,
periods of uncertainty and anxious waiting,
realisation of our own weaknesses, mistakes and failings,
awareness of missed opportunities, those things left unsaid or undone,
those moments when we struggled and felt like a mess. (pause)

Expanding our circle of concern, let us bring to mind those people, places
and situations that are in need of prayer right now, and hold them in the light:
– maybe friends or loved ones, those closest to our heart. (pause)
– maybe those we find difficult, where there’s a conflict going on. (pause)
– maybe those we don’t know so well, who we’ve heard about in the news. (pause)

Spirit of Life – God of All Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close,
we offer up our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears,
our beauty and brokenness, and call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen.

Carol: ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlefolk’

God rest ye merry, gentlefolk, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from tyranny when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.

From God our heavenly Father, a blessèd angel came;
And unto certain shepherds, brought tidings of the same;
How that in Bethlehem was born, the Son of God by name.

O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.

The shepherds at those tidings, rejoicèd much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding in tempest, storm and wind,
And went to Bethlehem straightway, this blessèd child to find.

O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.

Now to the Lord sing praises all you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface.

O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.

Reading: ‘The Nourishing Dark’ by Richard Gilbert (read by Jeannene)

We pause in the holy quiet of the nourishing dark.

The days are shorter now – darkness overtakes light.
We miss the sparkling daylight hours,
The long days of brightness and activity.
We yearn for their swift return,
And wonder if we can wait,
Or if our patience will at last give out.

We forget the nourishing dark at our peril.
There is mystery in the dark to be probed.
There is the adventure of that which cannot be known,
Cannot be seen-can only be experienced in the soul.
There is deepness in the dark, impenetrable and inviting.

In the darkness we rest our bodies and our souls;
We escape that which distracts and confuses;
We come face to face with ourselves;
We come into the deep places of our being.

Darkness is not mere absence of light.
Darkness is not simply an interval between days.
Darkness is the softness of things.
The blessed quiet of the night.

May we not bemoan the dark, but relish it.
May we feel its powerful presence
And rejoice in its mystical embrace.
May we celebrate the deep and nourishing dark.

Reading: ‘Sweet Darkness’ by David Whyte (read by Veronica)

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Carol: ‘Dark of Winter’

Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surrounds me.
Let my thoughts go where they will, ease my mind profoundly.
And then my soul will sing a song, a blessed song of love eternal.
Gentle darkness, soft and still, bring your quiet to me.

Darkness, soothe my weary eyes, that I may see more clearly.
When my heart with sorrow cries, comfort and caress me.
And then my soul may hear a voice, a still, small voice of love eternal.
Darkness, when my fears arise, let your peace flow through me.

Meditation: ‘A Blessing for Travelling in the Dark’ by Jan Richardson

We’re moving now into a time of meditation. I’m going to share a poem by Jan Richardson – ‘A Blessing for Travelling in the Dark’ to take us into a time of shared silence. We’ll hold a few minutes silence, with our virtual chalice on screen, and then we’ll hear a relaxing Christmas tune from Peter. So let’s do what we need to do to get comfortable; feel free to meditate in your own way.

Go slow if you can.
Slower. More slowly still.
Friendly dark or fearsome,
this is no place to break your neck
by rushing, by running,
by crashing into
what you cannot see.

Then again, it is true:
different darks
have different tasks,
and if you have arrived here unawares,
if you have come in peril or in pain,
this might be no place
you should dawdle.

I do not know
what these shadows
ask of you,
what they might hold
that means you good or ill.
It is not for me to reckon
whether you should linger
or you should leave.

But this is what
I can ask for you:

That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.

Silence: 3 minutes silence

Musical Interlude: ‘Christmas Time is Here’ played by Peter Crockford

Reading: ‘The Dark Llama’ by Robert Walsh (read by Liz)

One June night, while people in the southern hemisphere prepared for their winter solstice, I stood in a campground high in the Andes and looked at the sky. The Milky Way ran right over our heads in brilliant clarity.

Our guide pointed to formations in the bright band of light, and I realised that most of the patterns he pointed to were not patterns of stars but patterns made by the absence of stars. They were black areas within the thick bright stream of the Milky Way. It looked as though there were no stars there, but we were actually looking at dark nebulae that blocked out the light of the stars behind them. We were standing in the shadow of the nebulae.

The biggest dark area is a nebula that modern astronomers call the Coalsack. The Incas saw it in the shape of a llama. Nearby is a smaller dark patch they said is her baby. The dark nebula is pierced by two bright stars that they said form the big llama’s eyes. The Incas told a story about the Great Llama, that as her head dips toward the horizon at the solstice, she is bending down to drink from the ocean. Her drinking prevents the floods that would otherwise come; and the water she drinks flows through the Milky Way and becomes nourishing rain.

The story of the Dark Llama is a story of Creative Spirit revealed in darkness, not light. To the Inca observer, the starlight was the background, the foil. The darkness was the foreground.

It is a good story for our season of long nights in the Northern Hemisphere. It reverses our usual focus on the sunlight, the bright star, the candle flame. It invites us to allow the light to be the background and centre our attention on the creative darkness. We may meditate upon the darkness of the blessed night that brings rest and healing; the darkness under the surface of the soil, where the fertile seed begins to grow; the darkness of the mother’s womb. The old story of creation begins in the dark. All life begins in the dark.

Reading: ‘In the Dark’ by Vanessa Rush Southern (adapted) (read by Charlotte)

Have you noticed how many of the important parts of the Christmas story happen in the dark – that metaphor for things not clearly seen or known? I always imagine (and it is usually shown this way) Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem in the dark, after all the rooms are filled because of this lousy census, the one that forced them to travel even though she was nine months pregnant.

And the shepherds come by night too. No lanterns or luminarias were lit for this occasion, though that bright star hung so strangely in the sky over the place where Mary and Joseph rested. The wise men also came by night and without trumpet fanfares to announce or welcome them, no fine china to set out, no eggnog to serve.

And then they all leave, as quietly as they came. Even Mary and Joseph, at an angel’s warning, pick up their things and go, hiding their child, who was otherwise so impossible to conceal. From sundown to sunrise, so much happens while most of the world sleeps. To the people in the adjacent inn, it was just another night in a lumpy bed.

These activities in the dark of night are so different from what we do to celebrate these same events. We start preparing for this night the moment the last witch has hung up her crumpled hat on Halloween night. From then on it is all blinking lights and garlands, celebrations and pressures. Before much time at all Grandma is getting run over by reindeer and Mummy is busy kissing Santa Claus.

Peer-pressured by a neighbour whose whole Christmas village was erected in November, we got our tree early this Christmas, and I’ll be surprised if the needles can hang on until Jesus arrives. So much advance preparation on this end, and yet the story we honour was so much the opposite.

The truth is that the original story – all that coming and going by night – is probably closer to the way our own lives unfold.

In our own lives, no choral refrain announces the great visitors. More often those folks stumble in where we least expect to find them. No angels sing glorias to mark the dramatic moments. We bid a loved one hello or goodbye at a bus station, with the music of beeping horns and squealing brakes, or welcome a baby with only the chatter of nurses and midwives to accompany our amazement. You and I work through the hard parts of marital life and learn to love more deeply, we lose our centre and find it again, we and those we love face illness and get better or worse, we wrestle with fears and uncertainties, we discover ultimate purpose, and all the questions and gifts these moments offer to us are almost never handed over by messengers in fancy robes and crowned jewels.

Much of life does happen, so to speak, in the night – under the quiet cover of the ordinary – when no one notices but us how the world has just pivoted or quaked in our intimate sphere. And just as quietly we set out the next day by another road.

Carol: ‘Good King Wenceslas’

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, loving folk, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
You who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing


We have a few announcements: Thanks to our readers Jeannene, Veronica, Liz and Charlotte, to Marilisa and Peter for today’s lovely music, and John for co-hosting. We’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service as usual so you can stay and chat if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, as I said at the start of the service, do get in touch via email if you’d like to say hello. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music. We’ll be back next Sunday at 10.30 as usual.

We’ve got coffee morning as usual at 10.30am this Tuesday and there are still spaces for Friday’s Heart and Soul on the theme of ‘Caring’. Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start. There’s also a special festive Heart and Soul this evening where our Sunday and Friday regulars will come together – already a large group – but the more the merrier. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch during the week, drop each other a line, let’s look out for each other as best we can, especially while we’re still mostly-online.

Heidi and John have planned an in-person gathering for New Year’s Day at the church so do get in touch with Heidi – details in the weekly email – and probably best look out for this Friday’s email as this may change in the light of the Covid situation especially if tighter restrictions come in this week.

Looking further ahead: I encourage you to sign up for our ‘How to be a Unitarian’ online course that will take place on six Thursday evenings, alternate weeks, starting on the 6th January. The idea of this course is to help people get a sense of our Unitarian tradition and find their place in it. This should be particularly valuable for newcomers but I want to encourage long-standing members to sign up too so you can share your wisdom and make connections with others from our own congregation and others around the country. There will be some taught content and some relatively short readings to look at between sessions if you’ve got the oomph – the heart of the course is personal reflection and group exploration of what it means to be a Unitarian today.

Let’s squeeze in just one more carol. It’s a lively one to end with; get ready with your ‘fa-la-las’.

Carol: ‘Deck the Halls’ (2 min)

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
‘Tis the season to be jolly – Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la, fa la la, la la la,
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol; Fa la la la la, la la la la.

See the blazing yule before us, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Follow me in merry measure, Fa la la, fa la la, la la la,
While I tell of yuletide treasure, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Fast away the old year passes, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Hail the new ye lads and lasses, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Sing we joyous, all together, Fa la la, fa la la, la la la,
Heedless of the wind and weather, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Closing Words by Mark Stringer (adapted)

I invite you to select gallery view now so we can see our gathered community as we close.

As the year winds down to its close
And we are embraced once again
by the nurturing darkness of this season
that we have come to know so well,
we have reason to think back upon the year that was,
If only because it will soon be gone.

We think back to the friends we have made,
The sorrow we have endured,
The love we have found,
The loneliness we have survived.

We think back to the blessings of being forgiven
And the gift we offered to ourselves when we forgave.

We think back to those who listened to us in our times of need
And the times we could, perhaps, have listened more.

We think back to the things we traded for our time
And to what we may have overlooked in the process.

We think back to the times
when we were afraid and uncertain
and we trudged ahead anyway, as best we could;
the times when we were compassionate
when we could have been cold.

In this season of long, dark, nights
may we see ever more clearly
the true light of our lives:
The love we give to others,
the peace we nurture in ourselves,
and the vision of a better world.

May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘If We Make it Through December’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

26th December 2021