Have you ever noticed that the Christmas stories include a lot of returning? A whole lot. Angels announce the Savior’s birth to shepherds in the field, then return to the heavens from whence they came. The shepherds, having gone to see the Christ child in Bethlehem, return to tending their flocks. The magi, after paying homage to the child Jesus, return to their home countries. The holy family, having fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath, later return to Galilee.
We might say that Christmas is a story of turning our attention toward a miraculous unfolding of history in the birth of the Christ child, then re-turning our attention to the places from which we’ve come. It is as though the Bible is setting up a pattern, a reminder, for us to carry our extraordinary experience of encountering the baby Jesus into the ordinary world of our daily lives.
Karon O’Ferrall has depicted this movement in a strikingly beautiful art piece displayed in the front hallway of the church building. The first panel depicts the magi traveling toward the Christ; the second, the holy family at the manger; the third, the silent, waiting world. In that vast and serene third panel Karon has depicted two things at once—the breadth of our calling (the whole world), and the goal of our calling (the world whole). With these three images, and the light of a special star illumining each and drawing them into unity, we find the same pattern of “encounter” and “return” presented in Scripture and reflected in the calendar of the Christian year. It is as though we journey from daily life to sacred encounter, then from sacred encounter back into daily life, now with sacred encounter on our minds.
The mystic Howard Thurman, who was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote a poem that situates itself in the crossing over from panel two to panel three, from the holy family to the whole world, called “When the Song of the Angels is Stilled.” Here is an excerpt, paraphrased:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the shepherds have returned to their flocks, and the magi to their home countries . . . 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 nations, to make music in the heart.
What is your work, and our work together, following the song of the angels? Where are the places of sacred encounter in the world beyond the sacred encounter at the Christmas manger? Pray with me for God to lead us there with gifts of healing, hope, and joy.
Grace and peace.