Reflection on Christmas Day
“How good it is that, in this big, busy, hustling world, there is one day in the long calendar of the year when all of us, by common consent, close our book of complaints against the management of the universe, and join our hearts and voices in one grand brotherhood [and sisterhood] anthem, ‘Peace on Earth, Good-Will to [All].’ At such a time, it seems to me, one’s friends seem nearer, friendship dearer, and love more real. At any rate this is the way I feel about it, and I want to tell you so, because I want you to know that I value your friendship. And this personal thought, this friendly feeling, and interest in you, is not only for today, but will be with me in the days that are to follow and I shall always wish you happiness.”
Written sometime between 1902 and 1915, this Christmas thought was sent by James B. Dudley to James Y. Joyner. James Dudley, born as a slave to a former governor, would become one of the most important and influential black educators in North Carolina. He was President of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University from 1896 until his death in 1925. The James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, where the Agricultural and Technical University is located, was named after him in recognition of his work for his community. The recipient of the note, James Y. Joyner, served as the state superintendent of public schools in the early 1900s. Joyner, born during the Civil War, was orphaned at the age of two. He grew up in Lenoir County under the watchful eye of his grandfather, a prominent planter and influential Democrat. He would become one of the most important and leading white educators in North Carolina, first as an instructor and later as an administrator.
A friend, who was doing some research several weeks ago in the State archives office, uncovered this Christmas card from Dudley to Joyner and shared it with me. Since reading it, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. The fact that, in the early 1900s, a black man would write such an endearing and heartfelt Christmas note to a white man, seems like a Christmas miracle. How unlikely and extraordinary such an act must have been in those days? Reading Dudley’s Christmas note to Joyner has made me think about all the ways our world is transformed when ordinary people, regardless of who they are, where they came from, or the color of their skin, unite around a common vision for the good-will of humankind.
When I think about what this day means, I think about stories like this one—stories of unlikely people coming together for the common good of humanity. I think about how this day represents the people in this world who dare to shine their light in the darkest of times. I think about experiences in history—both past and recent—where ordinary people show us, in unexpected ways, that hope, peace, joy, and love truly are present with us in our world. The gospel of John reminds us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” He also reminds us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Can you take that in? Reach out, now—go ahead—and touch the person beside you. The Word became flesh. We are a part of that Word today. This day is about reminding ourselves of the light, our light and the light of others who have made our darkness not so dark. This day is about remembering those places where we have experienced God with us—in the flesh, living among us.
James Dudley got it right when he wrote that this is a day to close our book of complaints against the management of the universe and join our hearts and voices in that grand anthem of peace on earth, good-will to all. He was right that this is a day when one’s friends seem nearer, friendships dearer, and love more real. Indeed, this is a day when, by common consent, we Christians all around the world stop and receive God’s presence that was born into this world through the birth of Jesus. There are 364 other days before us for which we are to pick up the mantle and be Christ’s disciples in this world—working for peace, marching for justice, loving kindness, and being light in the dark. But for today, it is enough to simply sit and enjoy the presence of family and be grateful for the friendships that we hold dear. It is enough on this day to simply rejoice that God is with us in very real and tangible ways—in the hug of a friend, in the love of a partner, in the touch of a comforting hand, and in the gathering of community.
A strange thing happened to me this morning. I came to the church tired from this Advent season and the two Christmas Eve services we had last night. If anything, I just wanted to sit among you and be one of you. I wanted to not have to stand in this pulpit again today and proclaim anything to you. Before the service I was sitting in the pew sharing my feelings with Suzanne Newton and Deborah and Donna Steely. In a perfectly pastoral way Suzanne said, “Well just sit here. When it comes to the meditation time we will just meditate.” It was tempting. However, the longer I talked with them and looked into your faces as you filed into this sanctuary on this Christmas morning my heart was transformed. I went from being tired to being energized. I went from not wanting to be here in this pulpit, to not wanting to be anywhere else. I realized that it is here, in this community, that I truly feel and experience God with us.
It is my hope that today is a day when you can feel friends nearer, friendships dearer, and love more real. Merry Christmas and peace on earth, good-will to all!