The company has gone. The tree flops sadly at the curbside. The decorations are stowed away for another year. As we resume our normal activities, the feel-good generosity and goodwill of Christmas fade. With the Salvation Army kettles out of sight, the needs of others are out of mind.
Howard Thurman, an African American whose thought and spirituality influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, challenged the tendency to forget about others once the Christmas season comes to an end. “When the song of the angels is stilled/ When the star in the sky is gone/When kings and princes are home/When the shepherds are back with their flocks/The work of Christmas begins.”
In his poem, Thurman goes on to paraphrase a section of Chapter 25 from the Gospel of Matthew that informs part of the social doctrine of Christianity. Here Jesus of Nazareth outlines some of the behaviours he expects from his disciples. These include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned and caring for the sick. Furthermore, the disciple should undertake these actions with an attitude of humility and joy.
While the tasks that we associate with Christmas – shopping, baking, decorating and socializing – can be tiring, it is more challenging to live the social teaching implicit in Christmas throughout the rest of the year. The work of Christmas asks us to honour the dignity of every person, regardless of that person’s circumstance and despite our own negative biases. The work of Christmas invites us to walk with others in their hour of need, even when the walk is inconvenient and comes at a personal cost.
Years ago, I had a lesson in what it means to live Christmas beyond the month of December. A gentleman with whom I sat on a board made a comment when asked about his day. He said his day was wonderful; he had had a number of unexpected opportunities to help others. At that time, I was a young mother busy with the demands of three small children. Unexpected opportunities to help others were, in my mind, unwelcome interruptions in my schedule. His self-giving attitude amazed me and his comment challenged me to look at my own selfishness.
The social teaching that Thurman championed in his poem does not require us to engage in grand gestures to save the world. While individuals like King are remembered for impacting social change, most of us will never be the subject of a Wikipedia entry. Our actions are more likely to be ordinary rather than heroic and will remain largely unknown to the world. Life, God, the Spirit, or however you choose to name it, frequently calls us to act in small ways. As Mother Teresa once said, “Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” The attitude behind the gesture can make the simplest action grand.
In some ways, the work of Christmas stands in opposition to our annual custom of formulating New Year’s resolutions, which typically focus on improving the self or one’s situation. Year after year, our most common resolutions – to lose weight, spend less and save more, quit smoking, get organized, and spend more time with family – have little to do with incarnating the spirit of Christmas.
Christmas, as one of my neighbours put it, kick-starts our giving; it does not restrict generosity and goodwill to a few weeks of the year. The season of giving reminds us of how we are to live from January to December.
There is no question that preparing and celebrating Christmas can be a whole lot of work, but the work is short-lived. When the beauty, wonder and merrymaking of Christmas have passed, when we have returned to our humdrum nine-to-five routines, it is time to get down to the hard work of Christmas.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.
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