The Christmas season, with its themes of love, joy and giving that traditionally help the human spirit soar to great heights of benevolent outreach and greetings to others, may for many reasons be a time of rude awakening. This year, Christmas is being "greeted" in the experiences of many people by an awful apparition of economic change.

The liberal and free-spending style so closely identified with the Christmas season may only serve to intensify the emotional impact of job terminations, cutbacks in food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and health services. Christmas is being greeted by individuals and families who may be psychologically devastated as they confront the harsh reality of changes in their life styles. Christmas purchases, parties and dinners must be restricted, while homelessness, hunger and unattended illness increase.

Another social phenomenon greeting Christmas is the "new separatism." Many people were convinced that the struggles and achievements of blacks and whites together in the 1960s, leading to civil rights legislation and Supreme Court victories, had turned the country in a direction that ensured-- for all Americans--full citizenship and freedom from fear and want.

But there has been a change in the mood of the country. An air of permissiveness seems to encourage the bold emergence of separatist groups. The valuable coalitions of the '60s have been lost. The gap is widening between black and white, rich and poor, suburbs and city and the educated and uneducated, who are being cast aside or abandoned.

The underside of Christmas greetings--the cutback in domestic services and the new separatism that "greets" this Christmas--challenges the church and other religious organizations to help meet new needs.

During this season, the Council of Churches of Greater Washington is assisting churches and other caring institutions to work in four basic areas: 1) to address domestic needs, 2) to provide services for people and families suffering emotional and psychological trauma, 3) to bring together diverse groups for cooperative efforts and 4) to declare that "charity is not a substitute for justice." In the winter months, these groups also are being encouraged to serve an additional 1,500 meals, and to provide sleeping spaces for an additional 500 people.

A program is being developed to provide "end of the month" food supplements for recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps. And plans are being drawn for a continuing job referral program with a direct line to private sector job openings, and for free counseling services by psychiatrists, counselors, social workers and students. The problem of separatism will be addressed through seminars, conferences, companion church programs, human relations training and other activities with an emphasis on generating a better level of communication, understanding and trust among diversified groups.

The church must not allow its charitable efforts to be misinterpreted as a substitute for justice. Religious organizations must continue to let a suffering community know that somebody cares; but they must also work to keep the government aware of its responsibility to ensure justice for all Americans, and to protect basic rights to the necessities of life.