This year, more than most, it isn't "Joy to the World" ringing in my ears, but John Lennon's "Happy X-mas (War is Over)."
"So this is Christmas, and what have we done?" asked the one-time Beatle in his prophetic tune.
Christmas has become so commercialized that the true meaning of Christmas, as Charlie Brown would one day lament to Linus van Pelt, is obscured. Christmas isn't about shopping and parties. You'd never know that, however, from the hours of television and radio advertising that drown out the real meaning of this remarkable day.
In Charlie Brown's Christmas Special, that classic TV program (best watched commercial free), Charlie Brown yells out in frustration: "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" "Sure," replies Linus. "I can tell you."
Linus then relates the story of the birth of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke. The birth of Mary's child is announced by an angel who tells shepherds living in the field:
'Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace...(Luke 2 NRSV).
My contention has been and still is that even in the midst of war, deep global poverty and environmental chaos caused by humanity the message of the Prince of Peace is as relevant today as it was over 2,000 years ago.
What happened on the day Jesus was born? God broke through into the world again - but this time not with the force of the Big Bang or some other cosmic event - no, this time it was something even more powerful: the miracle of the birth of a child filled promise and hope. Both that miracle and the message that this child (born homeless and poor) brings (again and again) is what Christmas is about.
And yet, I wonder, like Lennon, what have we done in response to such a gift? The gift itself is one of grace and thus no response is required. The gift is freely given. Yet, at the same time, the gift is also a summons - a call to action.
When Jesus was asked why he was here he replied (echoing the Hebrew prophets): "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV). Jesus taught his disciples and all who would listen that we are tasked with ushering in the Kingdom of God, a time where justice and peace reign.
But what have we done? Some two thousand years later and the world is in pretty lousy shape. We even have the power to destroy God's creation through war or as the result of terrible environmental stewardship. People are allowed to live homeless and poor, children starve, many go without even basic health care, and our world is fraught with divisions over race, religion, sexual orientation and, of course, political ideology.
"Do not be afraid," says the angel. Those born in the time of Jesus also knew about war and hunger and social divisions. Jesus offered a vision a time when all that would end...a time when "the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together..." (Isaiah 11:6 NRSV)...a time when all humanity would live in divine harmony with all creation, as it was meant to be in the beginning.
"War is over, if you want it," goes the refrain to Lennon's holiday offering. The singer was right. So is poverty, hunger and division. We just have to accept the gift given to us by God on the first Christmas when Mary gave birth to the hope of the world and abide by Jesus' message of extravagant love and radical justice. We no longer have to be afraid. Our salvation has been here all along. There is cause to pick up a hymnal and sing "Joy to the World" after all.
The Rev. Chuck Currie is a United Church of Christ minister who lives in NE Portland, Ore.