When 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 poem “The Work of Christmas” is from Howard Thurman’s
The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations
The so-what factor
A teacher told me years ago that there are a bunch of questions to ask when we study scripture. They include: Who (wrote it)? To whom (was it addressed)? When (was it written)? Why (did anyone bother to write it)? What (does it say)?
All good questions, for sure. But this teacher said the most important question was this: So what? What difference does this text mean? How might it change us? We can ask that question about scripture. We can ask that question about our liturgies. And this week, we can ask it about Christmas. What is this season for? How does it change us? What difference does it make?
I know we’re in the last hours of Advent. I will undoubtedly be accused by the Advent police (a terrifying force) of getting to Christmas too soon. But a few texts have been kicking around in my head of late, all describing the so-what factor of Christmas.
There’s the final stanza from the beautiful hymn “In the bleak mid-winter,” text written by Christina Rossetti.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
It says that Christmas is about what we offer, in worship with our lips and with our lives. So we will gather, singing “Come let us adore him.” And we will be asked to think about where we give our heart, and how that open heart reaches out to the others. Join me in considering those questions this week.
Laurence Housman wrote a beautiful text for a hymn, though not specifically a Christmas Carol. It spoke of how the babe in the manger calls us to think about the world in which we live. Google his story. He was an illustrator who lost his eyesight so turned to writing and social activism, working for peace in a time of war. I’m haunted all year long by the challenge he poses in this last stanza of the hymn. He asks us to think about what we love, where we give our heart. Reflect on this stanza:
How shall we love Thee, holy, hidden Being,
If we love not the world which Thou hast made?
O give us [brother] love for better seeing
Thy word made flesh, and in a manger laid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.
Then of course, there’s the reflection offered by theologian, mystic, activist and prophet, Howard Thurman who wrote about the work of Christmas (included above). It describes our call to live out the implications of Jesus’ precious arrival in our midst. It may be the best articulation of the Christmas so-what factor that I’ve ever seen.
By my accounts, we’ve got a bit more than 24 hours left in the season of Advent, a season of contemplation. As you contemplate this week, when you will sing of joy to the world, as you look for a present for Jesus on his birthday, consider the season’s so-what factor. Consider the ways you can be of service this holiday. As God so loved the world in sending us Jesus, pass that love on to family, especially those who push our buttons, to Christmas dinner partners, especially those who watch different cable channels, to neighbors, especially those who might be alone, to those nearby and far away who have been pushed to the margins, and there are simply too many of those folks.
My hunch is that a commitment to be of service will be a great offering for the Christ child. I believe it will make your Christmas merry.
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