Jan 03, 2024 | John W. Coleman

The Work of Christmas
by Howard Thurman*

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 flocks,
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 the people,
to make music in the heart.

This weekend we will celebrate a tandem of related, special days of this season: the end of Christmastide—which lasts from December 24 to January 5; the Epiphany of our Lord, January 6; and Epiphany Sunday, January 7, which is also when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and Three Kings Day in Latino/Hispanic communities.

We are reminded that Christmas is not just a day but a season. For many of our churches it is a season of wonder, of witnessing and of work, all centered on the past, present and future coming of our timeless Savior, Jesus Christ.

Members of Denville Community Church journeyed into New York City on Christmas morning to bless homeless neighbors with sleeping bags.

During Advent and Christmas we enjoy the wonder of festive decorations, gift-giving and visitations. We witness to our faith through scriptures, pageants, carols and worship. And then many of us also roll up our sleeves or “don our gay apparel” and go to work in churches and communities to share the good news of Christ’s birth, life and sacrifice with others through deeds of love and acts of mercy.

I found online and received via email a good bit of good news from churches during this season: about the dinners they served; the food, clothes, toys and other donations they collected and distributed; the homes and senior residents centers they visited; the children and youth they gifted with moments of happiness.

Members of Greater New Jersey’s Denville Community Church (UMC)—”The Church of the Open Door”—journeyed into New York City on Christmas morning to hand out sleeping bags to neighbors struggling with homelessness. “We handed out 16 sleeping bags, along with Starbucks gift cards and candy canes,” they reported. “Many of the people responded with joy and conversation.”

‘The people at Hope Park are our family’

Members of Shores of Grace Philadelphia, an outreach of Eastern PA’s Lighthouse Fellowship UMC in Glenside, made their usual Sunday afternoon visit on Christmas Eve to Philadelphia’s Hope Park in the beleaguered Kensington community. But after several years of seeing and serving friends in their familiar space, they were abruptly forced by police to leave that corner—where they were preparing to pass out Christmas gifts (hats, gloves, socks), food, hot cocoa and coffee—and move about a half-mile away to another distribution location.  

Shores of Grace Philadelphia, an outreach of Eastern PA’s Lighthouse Fellowship UMC in Glenside, spent Sunday afternoon on Christmas Eve at Philadelphia’s Hope Park in the beleaguered Kensington community.

“We were told that we needed to go to another location due to the trash that is accumulating, but we always collect our trash,” wrote Joanna Keim on Facebook.  “Trash is the least of the problems in that area, and love is the cure to the real problems. The people at Hope Park are our family. Many of them walked the 1/2 mile to where we were sent, but I will work hard to get us back there…with permits if needed.”

Keim coordinates the ministry with her husband Todd, taking sandwiches and other gifts prepared weekly by Lighthouse Fellowship members and friends. “I keep reminding myself that we got to reach (and serve) some new people today,” she wrote, acknowledging an unexpected blessing in the forced relocation. “And I have a really good idea brewing in my mind.”

Members of Frankford Plains UMC in Augusta, NJ, packed 923 boxes for their Operation Christmas Child Project. That followed their preparation of 160 bag lunches on Thanksgiving Day for essential workers in their community, serving at hospitals, nursing homes, the state police and grocery stores.

A small light amidst the darkness

And the Rev. Steven Morton reports that two Eastern PA congregations and about a dozen friends raised $2,000 together to establish a scholarship for a deaf youth to attend a special week of summer camp at Pine Tree in Maine, which serves people with disabilities and their families. The scholarship remembers young Josh Seal, who was instrumental in running the annual week of camp but was killed, along with four other deaf youth, in the mass shooting that occurred in Lewiston, Maine, last October.

The check was mailed to New England Conference Bishop Peggy Johnson, who forwarded it to the camp. “A small light amidst a horribly dark reality in Lewiston, Maine,” said Morton, “but it’s a light nonetheless.” 

I’m sure there are many more small lights and inspiring testimonies out there, and we would love to see and share them with our EPA&GNJ readers. We sincerely hope more of you will send us good news about your good deeds in 2024—a year when we will likely need to share all the good news we can find.

During this happy and holy season many of us find our greatest fulfillment in doing “The Work of Christmas,” as the late, great Christian theologian and mystic Howard Thurman (right) describes our true and timeless mission. I found his popular Epiphany poem republished in many church newsletters and Facebook posts, and I have used it several times myself as a pastor and church communicator.

When all our wonder and witnessing are said and done, “the work of Christmas begins,” writes Thurman. But it is never-ending for many of our churches, who serve daily and weekly as Christ’s ambassadors of love. We are finding the lost, healing the broken, feeding the hungry, proclaiming release—or at least reconciliation—to prisoners, rebuilding communities, bringing peace among people, and making music in troubled hearts.

May it continue to be so throughout this year and for years to come. And please remember to share your church’s good news with us, so we can continue to help our Church tell its story. Write to us at communications@epaumc.church.

* The poem “The Work of Christmas” is from Howard Thurman’s The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations.