War will always be here. Poverty will always be here. Insecurity will always be here.
I think that's why I love the Christmas season and what it invites us to.
Yes, I realize Christmas is over. Some people thought it was over as soon as they opened up wrapped presents under a fake tree. Others thought it was over before it began because American consumerism overwhelms and causes a visceral reaction to stuff and more stuff. And still others might have actually celebrated up until this past Epiphany Sunday, the feast that marks the coming of the three Magi to see the newborn king.
Yes, most of the world understands Christmas to be over.
Theologian and civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, wrote a prayer that I have shared before:
Now the Work of Christmas BeginsWhen the song of the 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 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 the people.
To make music in the heart.
The following contemplation explores connections to our current state of the world and implications for both our inaction and action.
Now the work of Christmas begins
If Christ has been made incarnate in the very form of this child in swaddling clothes, what more is beginning? The Gospel of Luke identifies Jesus' birth in the time of Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Matthew's Gospel names Herod as King.
Kurt Willems in his blog, The Pangea Blog, explores the literary parallel that the author of Luke's Gospel pens. He writes, "It has already been established that Caesar Augustus was called the 'son of god' who was the great 'savior' of the whole earth through bringing 'peace' to Rome. The announcement of this was heralded as 'good news.' The four above themes are examples of the propaganda that was spread via the media of the imperial religion." The author of Luke's Gospel identifies Jesus as all four of these themes: son of God, savior, bringing peace and heralding the good news. Willems concludes, Luke having used this language to describe the birth of Jesus puts him "in religio-political opposition to the emperor."
Christmas reminds us that we are a people who want being saved. We want to hear good news after all the terrorizing, anxiety-provoking news we regularly hear. We believe that this son of God, child of God, the "apple that doesn't fall far from the tree," can bring us peace. We want more of all of this. Our desire for peace and good news is real, everyday, every moment and in opposition to the political bantering and personal jabbing of some presidential hopefuls.
Matthew's Gospel identifies the Judean leader to be King Herod, who ordered the Magi to find the baby in an attempt to destroy this new threat. Is it too simple to say that we fear our competition? We fear what we cannot control? That we do strange things when there is a question of power and authority? Jesus represents both a stark contrast to the ways of the political world and a simple idea, practice, way of being with others. Jesus, as a baby, is depicted as the most vulnerable in society. If we exercised more of this, we recognize the daily invitation to let go of control and power that hurts others. More Christ means more vulnerability.
Thurman's poem is a beautiful dismantling of the symbols of our faith. We would surely love to stay in the romantic setting of angels, twinkling lights and heart palpitations that only famous or revered people could incite in us. But we as everyday shepherds must go back to our smelly flock. We must all continue our pilgrimage roaming around "herding cats" – cats that come in the form of colleagues, to-do lists, emotions that have no outlet.
And yet, as a shepherd, I consider what happened:
But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.'
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.'
So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
What a wonderful delight that God may invite me to witness God's glory as an interruption of my daily work that offers strength, dignity and purpose. This is so powerful that I cannot keep it to myself; I praise God and offer this same peace to others.
Let us look to Thurman's call to find the lost, broken, the hungry, the prisoner . . .
And here is where some would say the "devil's in the details." I want to resist this. I want to defy that attitude of apathy and defeat. I consider each in a deep awareness that this is only the first of many steps in learning from God, being a studious and dedicated disciple, and doing the work of justice and peace.
Some of the lost: The youth and families I work with, teenage runaways, children in the foster care system,
Some of the broken: Veterans, the divorced, those who have been sexually assaulted
Some of the hungry: Those who beg for food along the on and off ramps of the San Francisco Bay Area, senior citizens whose fixed incomes limit their ability to care for their own needs
Some of the prisoners: Men in San Quentin, women in the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif.
Some of the nations that need to be rebuilt: The imaginary lines that separate us, Syria and the Middle East, the United States and our major cities
To bring peace among the people: What can I include in my list of things to do that will help to bring about peace among the people?
To make music in the heart: One step further, what can I include in my daily living that would bring so much peace, strength, dignity, and purpose, that I would freely sing with all that is within me, all given to serve and praise God?
[Jocelyn A. Sideco is a retreat leader, spiritual director and innovative minister who specializes in mission-centered ministry. She teaches bioethics, feminist theology, Christian sexuality, and Christian Scriptures at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif. Visit her online ecumenical ministry, In Good Company, at contemplativecompanions.org. Her email address is email@example.com.]
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