On the Sunday closest to January 1st, many UU congregations celebrate “Fire Communion”, where members burn pieces of paper containing brief descriptions of something they most wish to leave behind and light a candle for a new hope in the coming year.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Today is January 3rd, 2016, and the Sunday closest to January 1st, and the date that Unitarian Universalists throughout the world celebrate Fire Communion. Many are comforted by the thought that there are so many others in the Maritimes, on the Prairies, in sunny Florida, and even in France and England and Europe participating in a similar service. It is a reminder of the commitment that we have to ourselves and to each other. Commitment and Communion are similar words – strong words – both including a coming together for a similar purpose, for common or shared values. While we are all different and might have different beliefs, we have much more in common than those things that set us apart.
Our church year is divided by communions. Our first service together after the summer ends is water communion. We gather together after our summer travels, collecting water as we go and share stories of our wanderings and combine the water for future use during the year. Our church year ends with a flower communion, where cheerful, bright, colorful, fragrant flowers are shared – as symbols of love and hope.
Fire communion provides us with an opportunity to commit to change to improve something in our lives. This is a chance to improve something about ourselves or the way we interact with others. Our opening hymn this morning was Enter, Rejoice and Come In. Think of these words:
Enter, rejoice and come in.
Open your ears to the song.
Open your hearts everyone.
Don't be afraid of some change.
These words could easily be interpreted as an invitation to new or different actions as new year begins. Enter. Enter this year with joy and enthusiasm. Open your heart to each other and think of our 7 principles. And a constant – change – welcome it. Roll with it, or is said so often, go with the flow.
Later in the service you will be invited to write a word or phrase or several words or phrases that represent something you would like to leave behind as we enter 2016. Write those words on the flash paper that is provided to you. These important words can be written at any time during the service – flash paper and pencils will be provided. Later, you will be invited to come forward as individuals, as couples or as families, to burn that piece of paper - symbolically severing yourself from that which you would like to eliminate. You will also be invited to light a candle and consider the improvement you'd like to make for 2016 and beyond.
Have you ever looked closely at a lighted candle? The fire is alive. The flame will dance in a slight breeze; it grows, flickers and sometimes dies out. But it can be born again. Some candles are specifically designed to burn very cleanly and uniformly. Others can do the opposite, and flicker and buzz and pop and hiss.
People have always known that fire was special. Long ago, people revered the great fire ball in the sky, which warmed them and lighted their way. And there were smaller fires which were used to cook food and keep them warm. Fire was honored because it was special – it could do more than people. It had power: it could create or it could destroy; it could bring light or it could burn. It can be wonderful and it can be terrible and must be respected and used with care. People gave fire a special place in their customs and their religions. Sacred lamps were used in Temples and churches. Bonfires were started on hilltops and torches were placed near the graves of loved ones. Even today at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, a water fountain and perpetual flame stand proudly in front of Parliament Building. In Washington DC and in other national capitals, there are also eternal flames. Christians light candles on an advent wreath, Jews light eight candles on a menorah. At diwali, Hindus set small lamps all around the house. People use fire in many friendly ways. When one has a birthday, candles are lit atop the cake. On holidays in many places, fireworks, which are a mixture of moving fire with color and sound added, are used as a means of celebration. Laser light shows are another variation.
And probably the most recognized symbol of the new year, the ball in Times Square, New York, with its thousands of lights and controlled drop welcomes the new year to many millions of people in North America.
And when UU's gather, we light a chalice. This is our sacred fire. The fire gives light and warmth, but also symbolizes the light of learning. And the chalice is also a symbol. The image of a flame in a chalice was first drawn by a man named Hans Deutsch during WW2 for the Unitarian Service Committee. The committee wanted a symbol to show refugees from many different countries that they were there to help them. When refugees saw the image of the flame in a chalice, it didn't matter what language they spoke, where they came from, where they were going or how much money they had. They understood that the symbol stood for help. UUs started using the flaming chalice in their services ever since. And that practice proudly continues.
For us, here in North America, the New Year follows right after Christmas. But Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Grandfather Frost, or Santa Claus, as he is known in various countries, is not universally recognized. Muslims comprise about 25% of the world's population. Muslims do not recognize Santa Clause or Christmas. Neither do over 1 billion Hindus. Their holiday is diwali – the festival of light.
Many people throughout the world participate in New Year's celebrations. In Spain, people eat 12 grapes at midnight. In Italy, people go from one room to the other with a broom, symbolically sweeping out the old year, and many ring bells at midnight, to welcome in the new year. In many countries eating a ring shaped treat (donut) reminds us the year has come full circle and will start afresh.
As Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate the new year with a Fire Communion, which helps us to focus on our faults or limitations and improve on them. Lets start that process now. The flash paper we use burns very quickly. For your safety, please do not hold the paper in your hand, instead, place it in this sand and use this lighter to ignite it. The flash paper may be folded if you prefer.
After burning the flash paper: Please think of what you would like to do to improve yourself and light a candle from the table to my right, and hold that thought tightly and carry it into the new year.
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