Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy, love, peace; a time to set aside differences and celebrate together. But what do we do with that hope of peace in a time that seems so utterly broken, when hate is so strong, and the powers of oppression and racism are on the march. What does Christmas even mean in a time like this?
In 1973 against the backdrop of Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War, Pinochet and the Troubles Madeleine L’Engle wondered the same thing. “This is no time for a child to be born/ With the earth betrayed by war & hate” she wrote that Christmas in “The Risk of Birth”.
A hundred years earlier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wondered as well, in the poem that would become the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. His wife had died two years prior, and his son had been grievously injured in the American Civil War. What good was Christmas two years to the day after South Carolina left the Union in order to protect chattel enslavement of Black Americans. How can you celebrate when “hate is strong and mocks the song of ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to men’?”
You hold on to hope. You recognize that the incarnation of Jesus — God becoming man — that Christians celebrate at Christmas, is a protest against the status quo of humanity. Longfellow reminds himself that “God is not dead, nor does he sleep.” L’Engle reminds herself that while “The inn is full on the planet earth”, “Love still takes the risk of birth.”
A few decades before Longfellow, Adolphe Adam put Placide Cappeau’s Christmas poem (and Christian socialist anthem) to music. Reworked into English, we know it as O Holy Night:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Hear the Angel’s voices: the joy of Christmas is a call to arms. It is a rejection of everything the powerful hold dear, everything that separates.
The century before that John Wesley wrote in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! that Jesus was “Born that man may no more die.” A rejection of the status quo so great that it stands to turn the entire cosmic order on its head.
Christmas is good news to the poor, and bad news to those who oppress those poor. And that sentiment goes back to the very first Christmas song: The Magnificat, Mary’s Song, as recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke just after the Angel told her not to be afraid. She wasn’t:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
No wonder in his 1968 musical adaptation of the passage Fred Kaan named his tune Sing we a Song of High Revolt.
Keep the Christ in Christmas:
x out oppression
x out out fear
x out death itself.