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.
                                                                   –Howard Thurman

I’ve been quoting this on Christmas for almost two decades now.  For twenty years I have been misattributing the quote.  Every year when I post it, I find it by doing a quick web search for “Quaker Christmas Benediction.”  That is how I learned it, as attributed to the back of a Gordon Bok album.  I’ve always enjoyed the benediction as the wisdom of the ages, and it has always been a comforting way to re-center myself after the holiday rush, to look at Christmas as not a passing thing, but the beginning of a season.

Knowing where the quote comes from makes the quote so much better.

Howard Thurman does not have a national holiday.  He is not quoted often, and when he is he is often misquoted as my annual negligence shows, but he is an important theological bridge between where were and we are now and hopefully a foundation for where we are yet to go.

In the mid 30’s, Thurman met with Mahatma Gandhi, who talked about how he had found in Hinduism the seeds of nonviolent struggle, and encouraged Thurman to look to Christianity for ways of liberating his people, to counter the narrative that used Christianity to keep Black people “in their place.”

Thurman did so, developing a theology of liberation that in turn influenced James Farmer and Martin Luther King Jr.  Thurman was one of the co-founders of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first wholly racially and culturally integrated Christian congregation in the United States.

His work, his theology and his pacifism is written into the DNA of the nonviolent civil rights movement and American liberal Christianity as a whole.  When he writes of finding the lost, of healing the broken or of rebuilding the nations, he knows of what he speaks.

3 comments

  • Thanks for the research and the post.

    • The really fascinating thing about this is how quickly it became a “19th century” benediction. From what I can tell, the work was originally released in Thurman’s “In The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations,” published in 1985.

      It reminds me of a story I read about Si Khan’s “Aragon Mill.” Finbar Furey sang the song as “Belfast Mill,” and just like that, it became an Irish folk song.

  • Thank you, Kevin. Oh, how I struggle with Christianity as a flowering Buddhist…

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