(RNS) — Across the globe, from small communities in southern India to the splendor of the Vatican in Rome to homes across Oregon, people will gather Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. It is a joyful time. Families come together, churches fill up, gifts are exchanged and children can hardly contain themselves as they await Santa in his many forms — Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, Père Noël and others.
For Christians, Christmas is also a time for engaged reflection.
Howard Thurman, the theologian, author and civil rights leader, wrote a beautiful poem called “The Work of Christmas” that can help move American Christians from the commercialism of Christmas and into the heart of Jesus’ message for the world:
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.
Faith is work, after all.
Through the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament, those who follow Jesus are given a vision of the world that directly contrasts with the world we live in. For all that is good with the world, we also live in a time of unparalleled crisis. In times of crisis, God calls us into a partnership to find solutions.
Many of the issues that confront us today, such as greed and oppression, are issues the Hebrew prophets and Jesus would have recognized. What is different for this time? The scale of what confronts us. From the reality of human-caused climate change and the implications that brings for the future of all creation, to the growing threat of nuclear conflict, to increasing economic inequality. Crisis greets us whether or not it is a holiday.
Small children opening gifts under the tree this year, regardless of where they live, face the genuine threat that climate change will, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this past October, produce a future of suffering that will fall hardest on those Jesus called the “least of these.” Still, all of humanity will be impacted. The chaos caused by the gathering storm increases the risk of world war, terrorism, hunger and poverty, and it will further divide people along regional and economic lines.
Religion, which is too often used to divide, can be a tool to inspire the world to action. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was said to be “perplexed” when the angel Gabriel informed her that she was carrying the son of God, and the hope of a broken people. Her first response is understandable but her second response is remarkable. Like Moses and others called by God to great tasks, Mary sets aside fear and responds: “Here I am.”
This Christmas we live in the shadow of conflict. Historians tell us the United States has not been this divided since the period before the Civil War. The world itself is in peril. At best, our government stumbles in the face of complexity; at worst, we lash out in misdirected anger fueled by racism and xenophobia as we separate children from parents and tear gas others, refugee families not unlike Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
Our answer to all this must equal Mary’s: Here we are!
At the start of the Gospel of John, we are told: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
There is darkness today, to be sure. That darkness comes in many forms. The light of God’s people, known by different faiths and traditions, can still overcome it if we reunite this Christmas Day and each day after in common cause, as Jesus taught, to free the world from oppression and offer love in place of hate. If we genuinely honor Jesus and celebrate his birth, we cannot be the generation that allows all of creation to wither due to neglect or war. We must bring light and love to help creation grow and thrive.
Merry Christmas. Let’s get to work.
(The Rev. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister, is the director of the Center for Peace and Spirituality, university chaplain and assistant professor of religious studies at Pacific University.)