For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
“When the song of angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among sisters and brothers,
to make music in the heart.”
— Howard Thurman
I am writing this on what is known in my native England as Boxing Day. Traditionally the day when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts from their masters or other employers, I remember December 26th growing up as being a lot like a second Christmas Day. Relatives would still be staying with us, so there’d be more big family meals, more time with the presents we’d unwrapped the day before, more special shows on the television that we’d all watch together.
Of course, the Christmas season lasts longer than just a couple of days. In the weeks before Christmas Day, there’s Advent, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on December 25th itself, continuing through New Year’s until January 5th. The holy day of Epiphany then takes place on January 6th, which commemorates (amongst other, later events in the life of Jesus) the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem. So in our house, the tradition was to leave up the Christmas Tree until then, but it and all other decorations had to be taken down and packed up by January 6th.
In our increasingly rushed, hectic and busy lives, we tend to forget that while we tell the story of Christmas as if it could have all happened in one evening — something we may reinforce on Christmas Eve, of course, with services where a pageant or a sermon or some other form of message fits neatly into a twenty-minute time slot — the story doesn’t end. It doesn’t end for Christians for whom Jesus is the anointed Messiah and it doesn’t end for others of us who may not believe in such a theology of salvation but are nonetheless in favor of the idea of peace on Earth and goodwill to all people. In other words, the story has been told, but it hasn’t ended. And the work of Christmas now begins, as captured so clearly in the words of Howard Thurman.
Thurman was an influential American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Theology at Howard University in the thirties and then dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University in the fifties. He wrote twenty books of ethical and cultural criticism, the most famous of which is Jesus and the Disinherited. In 1944 he helped found the first racially integrated, multicultural church in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. Ordained a Baptist minister, Thurman studied with Quaker philosopher and mystic Rufus Jones. He was also a regular guest in Unitarian Universalist congregations, even serving for a brief period as Visiting Minister at the Community Church (UU) of New York. And in 1956, Thurman gave the Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of what was then the American Unitarian Association, ten years before his protegé, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the Ware Lecture to the UUA.
Thurman’s detailing of “Work of Christmas” gives us quite a “to do” list, of course. It’s not so good for people who like lists with items you can do and check off as they’re completed, though! All of the tasks on Thurman’s list are on-going, making them the work not just of Christmas but of every day, whether we’re talking about feeding the hungry or bringing peace among the people. That list will still be there this time next year, but I have faith that we’ll have been doing that work, whether it’s through our efforts at the PORT Winter Shelter or through the Virginia Legislative Ministry, whether it’s by supporting one another during hard times or by reaching out to help those in our own community in their struggle to make it through each day. Of course, we can’t do it all, and what we can do we will not often be able to do perfectly. But the good news in that regard is that the work of Christmas doesn’t call us to be successful; rather, it simply calls us to be faithful.
As we make our way into this new year, may we find that together we are able to engage ever more faithfully in the work to which Christmas calls us. Let us bring the living flame of our good news to those who need its illumination, its warmth to those who suffer from the cold, its nourishment to those in need of food. Let us keep in our hearts the ideal of peace on Earth and goodwill to all people, and may it show us the way to the Beloved Community.