Looking beyond the holidays
The world needs the song of Christmas year round
—A news photo Dec. 21 shows a line of 25 buses packed with evacuees crawling away from embattled Aleppo, Syria, through heavy snow. About 3,000 people, both rebel fighters and civilians, were among the last to flee the advancing troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Among these refugees, many of whom may shortly be back in the line of fire as the battle front advances, was a mother who had swaddled her small child in a blanket to shield it from the cold, according to a report from The Associated Press.
The writers must have had in the back of their minds another family with a newborn who sought shelter in that part of the world in a winter more than 2,000 years ago.
More than 4 out of 5 Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, believe that Jesus was a real historical figure and that his parents brought him to a stable shortly after his birth, says a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Biblical accounts tell how the young family would soon be refugees themselves, fleeing to Egypt to escape the local ruler, Herod the Great.
The Christmas story has always opened human hearts to those who are in need, whether they are fleeing persecution or lack food or shelter. The story is a reminder that every child, no matter how modest its birth, has the potential for a life of accomplishing great good.
As the world stands at the cusp of 2017, the need to extend the “message of Christmas” – peace on earth, goodwill to all – into each day of the year has never been greater.
Nineteenth-century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier caught that message in his poem “The Mystic’s Christmas.” In it “a pious elder brother” kindly declines to join in the Christmas merrymaking of the younger monks.
“Keep while you need it, brothers mine,” says the old monk, in words that have become a Christmas hymn, “With honest zeal your Christmas sign,/ But judge not him who every morn/ Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!”
In “A Christmas Carol” Charles Dickens puts that sentiment into action in a secular story. Following a revelation brought about by ghostly visitors, Ebenezer Scrooge changes his indifferent attitude toward others and vows to “honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
In the 20th century, African-American poet Howard Thurman caught a glimpse of Christmas expressed as year-round action. In his poem “When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled” the clergyman and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asks what should happen after Christmas Day is celebrated – after the angels sing, the shepherds return to their flocks, and the Wise Men leave their gifts and go home.
That’s when, Thurman says, the work of Christmas really 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.
Now there’s a New Year’s resolution for the whole world.