It was unsettling to discover in the week leading up to Christmas that throughout the land, housewives and husbands, mothers and fathers, bakers of all kinds, and possibly even members of the clergy have been unwrapping their Hershey’s kisses, only to discover that the chocolates are missing their tiny pointed tips.
70 million solid milk chocolate kisses roll off the line every day in Hershey, PA. And last week people noticed that the tips of many of those kisses were missing. It’s not that the tips have broken off within the wrapper. The tips are altogether missing, nowhere to be found, vanished from our sight. And although the NY Times published two stories about the matter in its editions last week, no explanation for the missing tips has yet been provided by Hershey’s. This is a disheartening and disappointing way to to approach Christmas: with imperfect, tip-less Hershey’s kisses.
Still reeling from the news of the missing chocolate tips of Christmas kisses, I was taken with another story about an American business in the Times: an exposé of the glitter industry. Yes, the glitter industry.
Practically all of the glitter in the world, it would seem, is produced in one of two glitter factories in New Jersey. You heard that right: New Jersey. And it turns out that the process of making glitter is quite nearly Top Secret. The Times wouldn’t even provide the name of one of the companies that produces glitter, so sensitive is that business to unwanted attention. The other company, called (not surprisingly) Glitterex, was willing to speak with Times reporter Caity Weaver, but, she said, they were extremely cagey about revealing any secrets about the method or process of producing glitter.
“People don’t believe how complicated it is,” she wrote. And her contact at Glitterex “would not allow [her] to see glitter being made, ...he would not allow [her] to hear glitter being made, ...[she] could not even be in the same wing of the building as the room in which glitter was being made under any circumstance.” (“What is Glitter?” by Caity Weaver, in the NY Times, 21 Dec 2018)
I must say that my own interest in glitter had been, I guess, entirely and completely latent for my whole life, until now. But now that I know what a big mystery it is, I am more interested than I ever imagined I could be in glitter. Glitter, I’m hoping, is a good topic for a Christmas sermon: better, I think, than the missing tips of Hershey’s kisses. But one thing both these recent stories have in common with each other and with Christmas is that they are mysteries.
We have done so much to own Christmas for ourselves that we forget that Christmas is a mystery. Even on the religious side of things, we often re-enact Christmas in Bethlehem with only slightly less enthusiasm than Civil War re-enactors at Gettysburg, as though we can inhabit all the parts ourselves - Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the sages from the east. We erect mangers as though the act of providing a place for the Christ to be born is a routine, annual event that requires no knowledge, skill, insight, or wisdom at all. And churches more adventuresome than this one will even be looking out in December for just the right child to take on the role of the Baby Jesus: young and small enough to fit in a manger, but calm enough to keep it together for ten minutes or so. It’s fair to say that when we control the Christmas narrative so completely, we tend to avoid and undermine the mystery of Christmas.
The mystery of Christmas is a mystery of God’s love. Why did God choose to show his love for his creation in this very particular, very personal, very risky, and very costly way? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really make sense.
Among other aspects of the mystery of Christmas, is that, like every other aspect of God’s love, it allows each and every one of us to take it or leave it. It is entirely dismissible as more or less a religious fairy tale. It provides no proof, no unassailable logic, no incontrovertible evidence of anything. It is only a story of divine love with some rather flamboyantly outrageous details like a virgin birth, angels who visit people in their dreams, and still more angels who once were heard on high. So it’s easy to want to control Christmas and to stick with it for the sake of the script and the costumes for the children’s pageant.
But to rob Christmas of its mystery, is, in a sense, to deprive Christmas of its glitter. And as it happens, the more you know about glitter, the more you might know about Christmas, too.
The Oxford English Dictionary is unenthusiastic about glitter as a noun, except insofar as it derives from the verb. The verb is defined in the OED in two ways. First, “to shine with a brilliant but broken and tremulous light... to gleam, sparkle,” which is actually a pretty Christmas-y definition. The second definition, the OED tells us, is especially descriptive of persons. In this case, to glitter is “to make a brilliant appearance or display; to be showy or splendid.” And I’d say St. Luke’s account fits the bill nicely; “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace!’” A little showy, and certainly splendid. Yes, I’d call that a brilliant appearance; I’d call that glitter!
I think if I were going to organize a Christmas pageant, I might borrow the stage design from the description that Caity Weaver supplied in the Times of the bottling section of the glitter factory in New Jersey - the only area of the secretive facility she was allowed to tour. There, she reports, “the concrete floor was finely coated with what appeared to be crushed moonbeams.” She described the shelves of different colored glitter in terms that would make Willy Wonka blush: “emerald hearts, pewter diamonds, and what appeared to be samples of the night sky collected from over the Atlantic Ocean. There were neon sparkles so pink you have only seen them in dreams, and rainbow hues that were simultaneously lilac and mint and all the colors of a fire.” And she explained that one measurement required in the production of rainbow-colored glitter is a unit defined as “half the wavelength of light.” How glorious!
I’d find my way to a manger that glittered like that year after year. And I think she is actually expressing something of the wonder that St. Luke was trying to convey to us, too, in his description of the first Christmas.
The question at the heart of the glitter article is a simple one: What is glitter? And this question provides a useful parallel to the question at the heart of Christmas, a question that has lurked in every heart that ever watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas:” What is Christmas?
The apparent obvious answers to both questions, are clearly insufficient. On the one hand, glitter is a product made from aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate (try to write a carol about that some time!). And Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But obviously, neither of these answers actually gets to the truth of the matter.
My heart leapt a little when I read in Caity Weaver’s excellent writing this concise answer to the question, “what is glitter?” She wrote, “The simplest answer is one that will leave you slightly unsatisfied... glitter is made from glitter. Big glitter begets smaller glitter; smaller glitter gets everywhere, all glitter is impossible to remove.”
Glitter is made from glitter.
I say my heart leapt, because I recognized in her explanation a simple and beautiful parallel to the church’s ancient understanding of Christmas. Once I heard this explanation, the echo of Christmas seemed so clear to me that I couldn’t stop hearing it: “Glitter is made from glitter. Big glitter begets smaller glitter; smaller glitter gets everywhere.”
And I think I’ve never heard the words of the Nicene Creed sing so beautifully to me: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”
Or as the great carol put it in a somewhat older translation than the one we sang tonight:
God of God, Light of Light,
Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb.
Very God, begotten not created:
O come let us adore him!
Glitter is from glitter;
and God is from God;
Light is from Light;
true God is from true God;
begotten not made;
and gets everywhere;
impossible to remove.
Tonight, amid all the worries of the world - and there are plenty… there are Christmas cookies being baked with Hershey’s kisses that are missing their tips, for heaven’s sake! …and there are some problems in the world that are even bigger than that!
… and yet tonight we have been called here to participate in a great and wondrous mystery.
Another way to put it is to say that we have been called together for a night to be a glitter factory. We have been called into the midst of a great mystery that we are asked to sing and pray about and hold close to our hearts, until we notice that it shines with a brilliant but broken and tremulous light; until we see that it gleams and sparkles. The light is broken and tremulous for a night because it comes from an infant child, so tender and mild that it appears that maybe the light will not survive. We have to wonder if maybe the darkness will overcome the light.
We are a glitter factory in possession of no aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate. And yet we have materials here that measure far more than half a wavelength of light. We have in the midst of us the power that created the moonbeams, and the emeralds, and the diamonds, and the very night sky that twinkles over every ocean, and the rainbows in hues that are simultaneously lilac and mint and all the colors of a fire!
Christmas is remembering that God has called us to be a glitter factory, possessed of the deep mystery of his love!
And God knows that tonight, like every night, there are broken kisses, to say the least, all through the world, here in this church, and in many of our hearts, even on a night like tonight: broken kisses aplenty.
And so, once a year, God calls to mind that brilliant appearance in Bethlehem all those years ago. He reminds us that although it was not very showy (except for the angels singing), it was indeed splendid, which is to say that it was a night that glittered…
…God from God, Light from Light; true God from true God, begotten not made…
… the mystery of God’s love… impossible to remove.
So, for what’s left of tonight, let us be a glitter factory together, let us gleam and sparkle, and shine with a brilliant, if broken and tremulous light!
Arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia