While the Biblical stories of Christmas are beautiful, for those who have ears to hear what they imply goes far beyond the narratives. The liturgical calendar suggests that Christmas lasts for twelve days, but let’s face it; when the last football game ends sometime on the evening of Christmas day, for most Americans it is time to get over it. The presents have been opened, and in a couple of days what is left of the live trees will be on the curbs ready for the trash hauler. Shortly the credit card statements will arrive, and the merchants will tell us whether Christmas was a grand success or financial disaster.
That scenario is not true for everyone. After serving on the faculty of Howard University, Howard Thurman founded the “Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples” in San Francisco. His final post was as Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (1953-65). But perhaps for Thurman, as for many millions of others, the message of Christmas is the entrée to a life-changing encounter with the Holy, and that means with the world. The mystery surrounding Jesus’ birth is far more than the telling of a beautiful story of angels, shepherds, wise men and a star hanging over the manger. So what do we do when the last carol is a fading memory and the remnants of the feast have been safely refrigerated? Here is how Thurman put it:
When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the 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 brothers,
To make music in the heart.
From "The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations"
Friends United Press, 2001 edition
Here lies the critical difference in how people see religion. For some it is the belief in the story’s truth. For others it is a hope in life beyond the grave. For still others it is a mystical vision. But for many it is a call to bind up the world’s wounds. And that is what it was for Thurman and is for most of the Christians I know. It doesn’t bother me that for lots of religionists it is truth, hope or mystery. People see what they see. But what moves millions of us each year, when the angels have gone and the star is dimmed, is living with and knowing about people all over the world, of all religions — and none, who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of peace, justice, compassion and the vision of a better world. That is what the story of the Christ child is at its core, and that is the heart of Christianity. Thurman’s vision is what goes on these days in seminaries, in thousands of congregations and in millions of homes, even as the decorations are being taken down and safely put in their boxes.
Have a blessed new year even as you are a blessing somewhere and to someone.