“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”
With that opening line and the isolated jangling chords, Lennon and co make it clear this isn’t going to be a standard Christmas song. I don’t care for edgy and melancholic Christmas songs usually, we get enough of that anyway, but I think this song has a core vastly more Christmassy than most.
The first line turns a mirror on the listener, not allowing them to escape into snowy jingle bell land just yet. It calls for perhaps uncomfortable refection, (as was often Lennon’s way), asking what have we done, as society, as humanity? This song was a continuation of Lennon’s and Ono’s protest of the Vietnam War, which, although in 1971 was in the process of Nixon’s supposed de-escalation, was still a canvas for atrocities; blanket bombing and mass execution were commonplace, rightly raising the question, what have we done?
“War is over” may not seem like the most Christmassy of ideas, but the concept of peace is a huge deal in the meaning of Christmas, and is still seen in Christmas narratives all over the place. For example the wonderful Christmas day informal truce: peace and football on the Western Front in World War One, which was amiably represented by that advert a few years back. Peace is shown more generally as co-operation, forgiveness, reconciliation, Scrooge coming to peace with his past and future, etc, peace is all over Christmas.
And so it was back at that first Christmas, the one prophesised “Prince of Peace,” came into the world and the angels sang “Glory to God and on Earth be Peace”. But what peace? Where was this peace? Even when Christ came Bethlehem was under military occupation, where was the peace? Was it just in sentiment, proclaiming peace as a good thing?
No, Peace really was on Earth, he was in the manger. He is peace, and what a beautiful picture of peace he is. More he came to bring peace and to make peace.
As we look back as Lennon encourages us to, we know that the prime reason of a lack of peace, is what we’ve done, individually and collectively. The Bible agrees and highlights two things we would probably readily admit too, firstly that our efforts have not brought about total peace with each other, (often the opposite) and secondly that we generally don’t accept God. The Vietnam War may be over but our capacity for destruction and hate seem in no hurry to leave. Imagine how the giver of this world and the one who loves its people, must feel. At the very least we’ve taken the gifts and forgotten the giver, at worst we’ve ridiculed the giver and abused the gifts. If there is a good God, surely they can’t be fond of what we’ve done, and what we seem to go on doing. Jesus agrees and warns that God won’t stand for any evil, so there’s a gap between us and God. You could say there’s conflict.
But, God doesn’t leave it there.
No, God came to us.
Not some representative, but God himself, and he came tiny and bare, born in a stable, and unable to even hold his head up. He redefined greatness to a twisted world and showed that this was to be a peace mission, not won by divine might or force but by love. He came not to negotiate, but to give.
How did people react, well exactly as you’d expect prideful people would, those in power tried to kill him, again and again. Thirty years later, when he’d done countless things to show not only that he was God, but that he was here “to serve, not to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many”, they finally got their wish, and he was willingly executed. And as he died, he shouted “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they do”, and then “it is finished”. As he dies, the peace is sealed, never to be undone. As an early believer and evangelist called Paul writes:
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (Paul’s letter to the Colossians 1–The Bible)
Jesus rose again, and now this peace is totally for us, it is the fulfillment of the Christmas gift. And as with any gift it only needs only to be received, we’re not held at ransom by God, the ransom has been paid. We receive it simply by admitting we’ve been wrong and inviting Jesus into our lives as Lord and saviour (The last verse of Away in a Manger is a great start).
This peace can be ours, and be in us as well, a peace that comes from being with Jesus, with all barriers removed by him, it’s a peace that “passes all understanding”, a supernatural peace that isn’t defined by circumstance, fairy lights or candles, it’s realisation of true purpose, so we, like Scrooge, can be at peace with our past and our future, and like with Scrooge, it can totally change how we live now. So among other things we strive for peace on Earth now. Jesus hated the horrors of the Vietnam War more than John Lennon and when Jesus returns, he will ensure wars cease, “so that all may lie down in safety.”
And like Lennon sings, it’s truly open for all, this isn’t a peace only if you can afford it, or peace if you’re the right kind of person. No it’s for “weak and for strong, for young and old, rich and the poor ones, for black and for white”.
Lennon wouldn’t thank me for this, it’s true that he was no great fan of Christianity, (though I don’t know if that meant Jesus to him or not- it should have done). Nonetheless I think that that which Jesus is: Peace, redemption etc, is so foundational to everything that even those against him can’t help but sing of it.
So whatever your circumstances, have a wonderful Christmas, because War is over (If you want it).
Glory to the new-born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
P.s. If you’ve got questions- I genuinely love trying to answer them, so shoot them my way!