These columns are due a week before they appear in print, which sometimes puts me in a bit of a time warp. As I write this, I am wrapping Christmas presents, mailing a few last cards and getting ready for the arrival of my family. When you read this, all the presents will be unwrapped, the cards will be received, the tree will be down and the kids will be gone. For the moment, I have one foot planted in the expectation of Christmas and one foot planted in post-Christmas daily life. But in reality, isn’t that pretty much how life is: living out our stories, rooted in the past, living in the present, and hoping for the future?
In the church world, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus — the arrival of God on earth as a baby in human form, sent to live among us. Everything about his birth is a surprise. His birth is announced by an angel. He is hailed as a king, yet his parents are humble people. He is born in a strange place surrounded by animals. The first people to worship him are shepherds, and later, wise men from other countries. Even his parents wonder what child they have brought into the world.
The surprises keep coming. Jesus grows up. There are very few stories about him as a child, so in a few quick weeks at church, we skip right to the stories of Jesus as a man, being baptized into public ministry by his crazy cousin, John the Baptizer. Then he starts hanging out with all the “wrong” people — the marginalized, the poor, the sick, the ostracized, the despised — preaching a message of love and a vision of a world turned upside down. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” “Love your enemies.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Don’t worry about tomorrow.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” imagery of the Nativity, picturing Jesus as a sweet baby who doesn’t cry, growing up to be the ultimate nice guy. The Christian message has often been portrayed that way. But actually, Jesus was a radical and his message is hard. He called out the hypocritical religious leaders, calling them a “brood of vipers.” He challenged the political leaders of the day. He told people that they would have to give up everything to follow him. He befriended prostitutes and tax collectors and lepers and criminals. This is the baby Jesus, the Christ child, whose birth we just celebrated at Christmas, and whom we now are called to follow through his strange and challenging life right through to his death on a cross.
Jesus came to earth to live among us and to show us a different way to live. He was called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” He gave us a vision of a world in which all people are loved and valued because all are children of God. He lived a life of sacrifice and a life of service. The challenge to us is to live that life in today’s world. How do we spread God’s love today? Who are the marginalized among us? How can we show God’s love to others, including those who are hardest to love? The work continues and it is up to us to be God’s eyes, ears, hearts, hands and feet today.
Every year, when Christmas celebrations are over and we return to our “normal” lives, I reflect on one of my favorite poems by Howard Thurman. Thurman was an African-American Baptist minister, theologian, scholar, writer and civil rights leader. His theology of radical nonviolence influenced a generation of civil rights activists, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman expresses in this poem what “The Work of Christmas” is all about:
"The Work of Christmas"
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.
May the work of Christmas continue in your life and in mine.