Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Beginning the Work of Christmas

The work of Christmas throughout the year: To find, heal, feed, release, rebuild, and bring peace

Yme Woensdregt

One of my favourite poems comes from American theologian 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.”

I love this poem for a number of reasons: its simplicity; it gives us a vocation; it helps us find meaning and purpose as it quotes Jesus, who envisioned his ministry in these very same terms in Luke 4:18—to find, heal, feed, release, rebuild, and bring peace.

Above all, I love this poem because of that wonderful last line. Who among us has not wished that the spirit of Christmas would continue throughout the year? Thurman suggests that this work is that “spirit of Christmas” and that doing this work will make our hearts resound with a joy which will be ours as we work to make all people whole.

I know of a man who tried to live this way in everything he did. He wasn’t perfect. Not by a long shot. But oh, how he tried, and his joy in that work was palpable. We could see it in his twinkling eyes, in the laugh which was just waiting to burst forth, in the lightness with which he walked and danced on the earth. This man had music in his heart, and he helped the world hear the music of the gospel.

Desmond Tutu was an Archbishop in the Anglican Church. He was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was an outspoken critic of the brutal system of apartheid and an ardent advocate for justice, peace, reconciliation, and hope.

No one would have thought this might have been possible for a black child born in a land ruthlessly ruled and dominated by white oppressors. He was born into poverty and hardship. He survived polio and TB as a child. He suffered the daily indignities of being treated as something less than human, and he could have easily been embittered by the hardships of his life. But he didn’t. He was making music in his heart.

Tutu never forgot the mission emblazoned on his soul— “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” … and above all, “to make music in the heart.”

The defining moment in his life took place in the mid–1930s. He was walking with his mother along a street in Johannesburg. A white man in peculiar dress doffed his hat and respectfully greeted his mother. He later learned he was Anglican priest, Father Trevor Huddleston. It was a remarkable moment; in those days in South Africa, white men who ventured into segregated black townships were either police or government officials, who never acknowledged the dignity of members of the local population.

Tutu taught for a while, and then entered the ministry in the Anglican Church in South Africa. He was a priest; then Bishop of Johannesburg; finally, the first black man to become Archbishop of Cape Town. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his non–violent opposition to apartheid. Nelson Mandela, the first black President of South Africa, appointed “the Arch” to head up the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995.

Even in death, he bore humble witness to his environmental passion, asking for the simplest, cheapest coffin and no grand displays of flowers, and that he be cremated in the most environmentally friendly way. His simple epitaph was “Desmond Tutu loved, laughed, and cried.”

He had a deep friendship with another spiritual giant, the Dalai Lama. Together, the two of them authored a book entitled “The Book of Joy,” a remarkable testimony from two spiritual giants who have both known the pain of oppression.

He was a tiny man—only 5’4”—but he was a giant among us. Bishop Michael Nuttall, in his funeral sermon and eulogy, said, “His faith was authentic, not counterfeit or half–hearted. He lived it, even at great cost to himself, with an inclusive, all–embracing love. His friend, Nelson Mandela, put it perfectly when he said: ‘Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.’”

Desmond cried easily. He laughed easily. He made music in his heart because he was able to live out a vision and mission which gave him joy. He fully lived out the work of Christmas in response to what he called “the divine nudge” and became an inspiration to the world.

Finally, Tutu had a way with words. Let me leave you with five memorable quotes:

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

“When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

“God is not upset that Gandhi was not a Christian, because God is not a Christian! All of God’s children and their different faiths help us to realize the immensity of God.”

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

This is what making music in the heart looks like.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook