Preparing this message for you this week I felt a bit like one of the magi, following the star, up and down and all around as my curiosity led me first from one idea to another and then another. The initial inspiration came from a quote I read in the book, The Work of Christmas: The 12 Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman (Epperly, 2017).
Howard Thurman, as you may know, is much loved by Quakers, even though he was not a Quaker himself. He was an African-American author, theologian, philosopher, and civil rights activist. In fact, later in life, his theology of radical nonviolence deeply influenced and encouraged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who he personally advised. But as a young man, when he just starting out as a pastor at Mt Zion Baptist church in Oberlin, Ohio, Thurman picked up at a library sale a .10-cent, dog-eared copy of a book written by Quaker Rufus Jones. The book was about Jones’ boyhood among Friends and his experience of God in everyday life. Thurman was so captivated by the book that he sat right down on the church steps and read the whole thing, cover to cover. Jones’ words and experiences spoke to Thurman’s own condition; he heard his own life and faith in the words. After he finished the book, he went back to his office and wrote a letter to Rufus Jones, asking if he could come study with Jones at Haverford College as a special student. Plans were soon set in motion, and Thurman and Jones developed a special spiritual kinship during that time that would last all the rest of their lives.
The quote I read this week that so captivated me was this:
“There is more to life than we previously imagined. Angels hide in every nook and cranny, magi masquerade as everyday people, and shepherds wear the garments of day laborers. The whole earth is brimming with glory for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.”
So this week, after all our preparations, Christmas Day came and went. We spent time with family and friends; we opened packages; we ate, we relaxed, we laughed, we loved. At the end of the day—or over the next few days—we shuttled people to airports, cleaned up happy messes, washed and put away new clothes, played with new toys, washed all the dishes. Some of us went back to work the very next day. Life—after that brief, wonder-filled holiday—went back to normal.
Except maybe it didn’t. Those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear, Howard Thurman says, can stay in touch with the living sense of wonder Christmas brings. Wonder lifts our heads and opens our hearts as we expect to find God in our midst. Wonder makes room for the surprising and even miraculous to be born among us. Wonder draws us forward with a childlike hope, reminding us that we are loved, that things are working out, that good surprises are always possible, and that God does have good in store for us.
In describing the miraculous birth of the coming Son of God, the prophet Isaiah makes it clear that the birth of this child is not just a singular good event—not something that happens once and then is over. Instead it is the beginning of something big, a far-reaching change for the better that will be a blessing for all people. Isaiah 9:6 tells us,
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Richard Foster’s commentary says here, “A radical transformation is about to happen—from darkness to light, from sadness to joy, from oppression to freedom, from war to peace. The reason for this newness is the birth of a child…The four titles at the end of verse 6 are characteristic royal titles that would have been used in a coronation ceremony. [This]…anticipates the expansion of the new king’s kingdom, which will be marked by justice and righteousness, a governance accomplished by God’s own will.”
With the birth of this human and divine child, righteousness itself, justice itself, Love itself comes to be with us in this world, traveling with each of us on our individual journeys through life, helping us receive and know and share the miracle of God’s love and light with others. That, at the most essential point, is the wonder of Christmas. And it’s a wonder—and a work and a hope—that continues.
And think about the wonder that must have filled the hearts and minds of the magi when they first saw the rising of the star heralding the divine birth. Their wonder was so great, the moment of such importance, that they were compelled to act—to leave their daily duties, whatever those might be, and travel a great distance to look for the child. This star told them something wondrous was happening, something life-and-world-changing, something they had likely been watching and preparing for all their lives.
The wise men were trained and skilled in reading signs and wonders, perhaps experts in astrology, gifted in foretelling changes to come. They knew first-hand the truth of what David wrote in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. 2Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” God often touches our hearts directly through our experiences of nature. We’ve probably all felt awe looking at a beautiful sunset or been speechless looking at the majesty of mountains, enjoyed the rhythm of the rain, or felt mesmerized looking at water or fire or watching snow falling silently from the sky.
Rufus Jones’ first experience of God was just this kind of thing—feeling the divine as a loving, living presence in the beauty and goodness around him. In his book, Finding the Trail of Life—the same book that so inspired Howard Thurman—he writes, “I had no satisfactory theory to explain the presence and the work of God in nature. I find it hard to discover a satisfactory theory even now. But, at any rate, my love of beauty in nature helped very much to strengthen and support my faith in God. I felt His presence in my world rather than thought out how He could be there. When I was moved with wonder, awe and mystery, I was always reaching out beyond what I saw and touched, and I had a religious feeling even if I did not have a sound theory to go with it.”
This was Howard Thurman’s story too. In an online interview with Quaker Landrum Bolling, Thurman shared that he, too, had felt God in the life around him. He shared a story about a huge old oak tree not far from the Atlantic that became a good friend and comfort to him. He saw that as the spring and summer storms came up the coast, other trees would lose branches or be toppled by the force of the winds. But the huge oak tree stood steady, strong, barely moving. The tree showed him that with deep roots in God, he, too, could be unmoved by the violence of the outer world. He said when he was struggling, he would go sit with his back against the trunk of the tree and share—out loud–all his troubles and sorrows. There he felt heard and understood and valued by something bigger than himself, and when he got up, he felt clearer and stronger and ready to face the day.
So God’s star brought the wise men closer to the miracle they were searching for. The townspeople told them of the prophecy that mentioned a little town not far from their own. So after an encounter with wily King Herod, whose corrupt intent was not lost on them, they set out on a journey toward Bethlehem. The star reappeared to lead them to the place where the child was with his mother. As they approached the house—the scripture here says it was a house and not a stable–they were overjoyed when the star came to a stop: this place, right here; this moment, right now; this divine and sacred instant is the opportunity for them to once and for all time meet the true, pure, Light of God’s love in this world.
Can you imagine what they were feeling as they walked up to the door? There’s probably no human word for it. But it had to have included wonder, awe, humility, and gratitude all mixed in there together.
When they entered the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and they knelt down and worshipped him—this tiny baby, the Prince of Peace the world has been waiting for. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this, but it seems that anytime we find ourselves in the same space with a newborn baby—this happened to me on Friday of this week when I got to meet a coworker’s brand new granddaughter—there is a hush of reverence that comes over everyone in the room. We are drawn to the innocence. We love the purity. Our hearts open to the beauty and tenderness of this sweet new life. Look what God has done! We marvel. We remember what a mystery life is—so much bigger than we are. We wonder. We feel filled—maybe for just a moment—with a grateful awareness of the goodness and preciousness of life.
The tender moments between the wise men and the baby and his mother in the home in Bethlehem would have had all those natural feelings and more. And the larger context—the deep understanding of these learned men—was that time begins again now. Not only a new baby but also a new day has been born. The time of prophecy has ended. And now, Emmanuel, God has come to teach His people himself, bringing light and love, wonder and delight to each of us–one heart, one person, one life at a time.
That is why Howard Thurman insists that even today, with all the celebrations over, Christmas has only just begun. The Light of God has been born in us and now continues to move and inspire and heal, heart by heart by heart. Thurman writes,
“Once this spirit becomes part of a person’s life, every day is Christmas and every night is freighted with the dawning of fresh, and perhaps holy, adventure.”
The author adds this reflection on Thurman’s thought:
“Christmas is the promise of tomorrow, embodied in the adventures of today. The Prince of Peace is born among us and invites us on a holy adventure in which we discover that love is stronger than fear, reconciliation more powerful than hate, and peace more enduring than violence. Christmas asks us and our leaders to live by a new standard and to choose a new way of life.
Christmas looks forward. Incarnate in a manger over two thousand years ago, God is also the voice of tomorrow, the moral arc of history calling us forward to horizons of hope and affirmation. God is fully here and now—but God’s realm lies in the future, inviting us to be citizens of a world not yet born.” (p. 39)
Even after we take the tree down, put the lights away, and store the decorations for another year, we can choose to be the ones who have eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that are open to the ongoing wonder and blessing of Christmas. We are part of God’s great movement of Light in our world. Let’s carry that—reverently, with hope and grace—into the New Year.
- OT Isaiah 9:6
- NT Matthew 2: 1-12
- The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman, by Bruce Epperly, 2017. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1625244797
- Landrum Bolling interviews Howard Thurman (2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGX4-Wv9UD0
- Jones, Rufus. Finding the Trail of Life. https://quakerbooks.org/products/finding-the-trail-of-life-4373