I first encountered “The Work of Christmas,” by the Rev. Howard Thurman, through a United Methodist pastor in the mid 1980s. Each year since then, I have read (and often shared with others) this inspired piece of writing. It has become quite well known through social media since then, but for those who may not yet know of it, I’ll share it here once more:
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 flocks,
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 people,
To make music in the heart.
Thurman was the Dean of March Chapel at Boston University from 1953 – 1965. Like all who are privileged to do campus ministry, Thurman no doubt influenced many during those twelve years at BU through his preaching and teaching and pastoral presence. But perhaps most famously, it was during this time that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the PhD program at BU. And so this Baptist minister born at the end of the nineteenth century had an opportunity to influence another Baptist minister who was about to change this nation in the twentieth century.
After more than thirty years of praying these words about the work of Christmas, I just recently came across a similar poem/prayer by Thurman that was previously not known to me. I find the same spiritual depth in it, as a kind of “companion piece” to the one that has become so familiar to me. (It also reminds me of the Prayer of St. Francis.) It goes like this:
will light Candles this Christmas;
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.
As every good liturgical Christian knows, it’s not too late. Christmas is not one day, but a twelve day season. So it’s not too late to light some candles of joy, and hope, and courage, and peace, and grace, and love that will burn all year long. We need them! We are a people who have walked in darkness, but we are also a people who have also seen a great light. We are a people who light little candles every time we baptize someone and seal them and mark them as Christ’s own forever – lighting them from the paschal candle that reminds us that Light has come into the world. And the darkness has not overcome it.
I commend both of Thurman’s prayers to God’s people in our diocese as we look toward Annual Meetings and new beginnings. How can our congregations and worshiping communities become places where the light shines, places where the world encounters good news? What is the work God has given us to do in this time and place? The answer to that question won’t be exactly the same in Northampton as in Northborough. And yet we are bound together in love, with one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.
The world is a nightmare for so many, as our Presiding Bishop often says. Sometimes it’s a nightmare for us. One need not go very far to encounter sadness, despair, fear, tempest-tossed days, and heavy burdens. Yet we choose not to curse the darkness, but to let the Word-made-flesh illumine the path. We choose the dream of God and the way of love. Together, may we seek the light across this diocese in this new year of grace.