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     Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation to the Shepards, oil on canvas, ca. 1895

    The Work of Christmas

    The song of the angels breaks into our ordinary lives, and no one can stop us from hearing it.

    By Howard Thurman

    December 28, 2000
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    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 brothers,
    To make music in the heart.

     Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation to the Shepards, oil on canvas, ca. 1895

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, oil on canvas, ca. 1895

    The Singing of the Angels

    There must be always remaining in every man’s life some place for the singing of angels – some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and by an inherent prerogative throwing all the rest of life into a new and created relatedness. Something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright white light of penetrating beauty and meaning – then passes. The commonplace is shot through now with new glory – old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all of the crassness of life, despite all of the hardness of life, despite all of the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.

    Oscar Wilde says in his De Profundis, “There is always room in an ignorant man’s mind for a great idea.” It is of profoundest significance to me that the gospel story, particularly in the Book of Luke, reveals that the announcement of the birth of Jesus comes first to simple shepherds who were about their appointed tasks. After theology has done its work, after the reflective judgments of men from the heights and lonely retreats of privilege and security have wrought their perfect patterns, the birth of Jesus remains the symbol of the dignity and the inherent worthfulness of the common man.

    Stripped bare of art forms and liturgy, the literal substance of the story remains, Jesus Christ was born in a stable, he was born of humble parentage in surroundings that are the common lot of those who earn their living by the sweat of their brows. Nothing can rob the common man of this heritage – when he beholds Jesus, he sees in him the possibilities of life even for the humblest and a dramatic resolution of the meaning of God.

    If the theme of the angels’ song is to find fulfillment in the world, it will be through the common man’s becoming aware of his true worthfulness and asserting his generic prerogatives as a child of God. The diplomats, the politicians, the statesmen, the lords of business and religion will never bring peace in the world. Violence is the behavior pattern of Power in the modern world, and violence has its own etiquette and ritual, and its own- morality.


    From Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas (Harper and Row, 1973), 10–11, 23.

    Contributed By Howard Thurman

    Howard Thurman (1899–1981) was a spiritual mentor to civil rights leaders. A grandson of slaves, he graduated as valedictorian from Morehouse in 1923. Later studies with Quaker theologian Rufus M. Jones and an encounter with Mohandas K. Gandhi informed his writings on segregation, nonviolence, and spirituality.

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