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The work of Christmas: The Christian imperative

Rev. John Zehring

December 25, 2020

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Who among us has not said, at least sometime in our lives, that we wish the spirit of Christmas would continue throughout the year? The spirit of Christmas embraces a spirit of generosity which impels us to give, to care, to share, to love, and to labor for a greater good. A majestic poem by Howard Thurman, from his book “The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations” (originally published in 1973), encourages us to continue the work of Christmas:

“The Work of Christmas”


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 flock,

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.[i]

Howard Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential African American theologian and author, philosopher, educator, and civil rights leader. He spent more than two decades as a Dean of Chapel, first at Howard University and then at Boston University (where he was the first African American to hold this position at a majority-white U.S. university), wrote more than twenty books, and in 1944 cofounded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated, interfaith religious congregation in the United States.

As I meditate upon this poem and its encouragement to do this work of Christmas, I know in my heart that it is based in the Gospel of Jesus Christ:  “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36). These are noble actions which I too encourage and applaud. But then I wonder… how many of these things have I ever done with much substance? I have never released a prisoner or rebuilt a nation. World hunger has long been a passionate interest, but how much have I really accomplished? I suppose by encouraging people to put God first, I might lead some to wholeness or healing of their spirit, but that only applies to people who come to hear me speak or who read my writings. That seems a far cry from the active tense of a shepherd going out into the darkness to search for a lost sheep. I have tried to help others to resolve conflict when there was a rare opportunity and I have encouraged both inner peace and world peace, but I’m not sure I can say at the end of the day that I have brought peace among people. Perhaps the best I can say upon an honest introspection about this poem and me, is that I have basically failed at the work of Christmas. That leads me to wonder, in response to Thurman’s haunting poem, about what I can’t do and what I can do.

The work of Christmas, because it is the work of Jesus, becomes for us a lifelong Christian imperative. It begins by caring about the things Jesus cared about. Then, perhaps someday, we might at least make a difference to one of them.

I can’t do much alone. However, as a part of the body of Christ, the Church, we can do much together. 

I can’t do everything at once. Thurman’s poem uses verb imperatives to encourage us to do something. Jesus, in his teaching, also used imperatives, which are verb forms that tell you to do something. In Greek there are two kinds of imperative. First, there is the aorist imperative which issues a specific one-time definite command. Do it, and do it now, this one time. Second, the present imperative issues a command that a person should always do something or should keep on doing something. Wear seat belts, for example, is a present imperative that tells you to always do it. Therefore, when we encounter Thurman’s or Jesus’ imperatives, they have the sense of the present imperative: to keep on doing the work of Christmas as a lifetime concern and action. Preparing ourselves to carry out Jesus’ imperatives is part of our work of Christmas.

I can’t do it all. But I can do something. This idea is perhaps best exemplified in the popular story (originally derived from “The Star Thrower” by anthropologist and author Loren Eiseley) about two men walking along a beach where hundreds of starfish had been washed up by the tide. One of the men picked up a starfish and flung it back into the water. As he tossed it back to the sea, the other man said, “What’s the point of doing that? There are too many starfish on the beach. What difference does it make?” His friend answered, “It makes a difference to that one!” Any little bit that I can move the work of Christmas in a forward direction is good work.

I can’t accomplish much if my focus is “I can’t.” The focus of the Bible is not on what cannot be accomplished. Just the opposite. Jesus taught “…all things are possible for the one who believes.”  (Mark 9:23 NASB). Paul wrote “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13). God is a can-do God: “God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”  (Ephesians 3:20, The Message). The Psalmist exuded a positive attitude and an inspired self-confidence when he wrote “By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall” (Psalm 18:29). The work of Christmas requires an attitude that with God, we can do what God calls us to do.

The work of Christmas, because it is the work of Jesus, becomes for us a lifelong Christian imperative. It begins by caring about the things Jesus cared about. Then, perhaps someday, we might at least make a difference to one of them.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas,” in The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations. (Reprinted, Richmond IN: Friends United Press, 1985), 23.

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