Howard Thurman was a prolific writer on many areas both in terms of social and political concerns, as well as the spiritual life in relationship to those more “secular realms.” He was also the writer of several collections of short reflections and prayers. One of those collections is The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations. My wife and I have been reading one of those reflections every night when we sit down to eat dinner and have found rich insights and encouragement in his words.
In regards to the Christmas story, Thurman was not a literalist when it came to details such as the angels, the shepherds, Magi, or even the virgin birth, and yet in that story he found a richness of symbol that speaks to the deep recesses of the human condition. Moreover, while he affirmed that Christmas was a uniquely Christian celebration, he felt its message had something for people of all faiths and no faith. Thurman writes: For [the Christmas Season], we affirm our solidarity with the whole human race in its long struggle to come humane and to reveal divinity in which all [humankind] shares” (p. xii).
He expands on this idea when he writes: Christmas “is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making the crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of everyday, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil” (p. xiv).
I would like to share a few of his short reflections. In this first entry, Thurman picks up on the theme of waiting which as at the heart of the Advent season. He identifies the ravages of human suffering and the promise of health and wholeness that people of all nations yearn for.
Christmas is Waiting to Be Born
Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life, And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all [humanity].
On a more individual level Thurman saw the Christmas season as a time for taking stock and making adjustments in our lives. In that vein he writes this next entry.
Christmas is a Season of the Heart
The Time of forgiveness for injuries past,
The Sacrament of sharing without balancing the deed,
The Moment of remembrance of graces forgotten,
The Poem of joy making light the spirit,
The Sense of renewal restoring the soul,
The Day of thanksgiving for the goodness of God.
CHRISTMAS IS THE SEASON OF THE HEART.
Like Hannukah, and Kwanza, which also are celebrated during this darkest time of the year, the use of candles is a central part of the Advent-Christian ritual. They call to mind light in a time of darkness, and a beacon of light that can lead us through that darkness. It is in that spirit he writes this next reflection.
I Will Light Candles This Christmas
Candles of joy, despite all sadness.
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage for fears ever present.
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
However, Christmas is not just waiting and then celebrating, Christmas also looks forward to God’s call upon our lives and the work we are called to do to make the world more humane, just, healthy and fruitful. That is why this last reflection is so important, because it points to our call and charge in the world as individuals, communities and nations.
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the 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 brothers,
To make music in the heart.
May these few words of Howard Thurman enrich your holiday season in the midst of this time of COVID-19, unemployment, hunger, political wrangling and international instability. Thurman reminds us that we are called to join in divine work and that in spite of it all, as the Christmas message affirms, God is with us.
Have a Blessed Christmas.