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 Christmas 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 onto paraphrase a section of chapter twenty-five from the Gospel of Matthew that informs part of the social doctrine of Christianity. Here Jesus of Nazareth outlines some of the behaviors that 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 difficult 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 and invites us to walk with others in their hour of need.
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 work of Christmas does not require us to engage in grand gestures to save the world, although some, like King, will have a huge impact on society. For most of us, our actions are more likely to be ordinary than heroic. If we can “do ordinary things with extraordinary love” (to quote Mother Theresa), our simplest action becomes 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, to spend less and save more, to quit smoking, to get organized and to spend more time with family – have little to do with incarnating the spirit of Christmas.
Christmas, as one of my neighbours put it, should kick start our giving, not restrict it to a few weeks of the year. Although we feel good when we drop some coins into the Salvation Army kettle, the season of giving reminds us of the manner in which we are to live from January to December.