Many of us have just celebrated the Feast of Thanksgiving, where we may have connected with our family and friends over a feast of stuffed turkey, cranberries, and sweet potatoes. In my family, this meal also includes ham, macaroni and cheese, collard greens or cabbage, and corn pudding. We usually end with slices of pound cake, sweet potato pie, pecan pie and apple dumplings. It is during this Feast of Thanksgiving that we begin gearing up for the Christmas season. Many of my family and friends reveal their Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping strategies. Others, like me, reveal strategies of spending the next few days in warm fuzzy pajamas with a list of movies to watch, and mugs of hot apple cider to drink.
This is also the time period during which American society reflects on the birth of Jesus. Many of our communities are filled with Christmas lights and nativity scenes. Our neighbors are friendlier and “filled with the Christmas spirit” of giving charity freely. As the crooner Andy Williams sang, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”.
Charity is synonymous with agape or unconditional love. As Christians whose vocation is professional social work, we are keenly aware of the importance of charity, and the need for charity more than just during this time of the year. We are also keenly aware that charity is often relegated to giving money and things to those living in poverty. However, the Apostle Paul writes in a letter to the Corinthian church, “If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere” (I Corinthians 13: 3). Jesus teaches that love is the central commandment. He teaches us to love God with all of our “passion, prayer and intelligence”, and that “everything in God’s law and the prophets hangs from them” (Matthew 22: 37-40). The love of which Jesus consistently taught and demonstrated is much greater than giving money and things. It is a kind of love that transforms the world. I love the story in Luke 4 of when Jesus returns to Nazareth after his well-known temptation by Satan in the wilderness. Jesus had led a series of what we might call “gospel meetings” on his journey back to his hometown of Nazareth. The scriptures report that Jesus went to the place of worship “as he always did”, and at the appropriate time, stood up to read the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce the pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!””
The scriptures go on to report that Jesus hands the scrolls back and takes a seat. (I imagine that if this was a contemporary story, Jesus would have a microphone in his hand while reading this portion of the scripture, and then at the conclusion, he would stretch out the hand with the microphone, dramatically drop the microphone to the floor, and walk off of the podium…I digress). As you can imagine the audience was stunned by Jesus’ audacity.
Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) wrote the following:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
These powerful words eloquently describe what it means to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus whose vocation is professional social work, we often see ourselves as the hands and feet of Jesus. We know firsthand the viciousness of poverty in America. We are intimately aware of the criminal injustice system of racial and economic disproportionality. We have experiences with a broken health care system that allows unnecessary suffering. We have witnessed the burden of mental illness in our clients. We have fought against oppressive systems. Imagine how we might stun our neighbors and co-workers by publicly proclaiming: God’s Spirit is on me. He’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the economic and spiritually poor. He has sent me to fight the criminal injustice system, and to develop policies that solve the American health care crisis that allows some to suffer unnecessarily. He has chosen me to provide comfort to the mentally ill. He has sent me to challenge oppressive systems. This is God’s year to act!!
And then we dramatically drop the microphone and return to our seat! I agree with Andy Williams, in that this is the most wonderful time of the year. This is the one time of the year where we have the opportunity to share Jesus and his brand of charity to an open audience. Jesus is truly the reason for this season…and for all seasons.
(Please note that the scriptures are taken from The Message version of the Bible).
Tanya B. is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Baylor University’s School of Social Work. She has been a member of NACSW since 2009, and is currently a NACSW Board Member.