It seems that every time I turn on the radio this season, they’re playing Lennon’s Happy Christmas (War is Over), and ever time I hear it I think to myself, “John Lennon was an idiot.” In reality, of course, he wasn’t, except for his letting Yoko think for him. It’s actually not a bad song; I think it’s “war is over, if you want it” chant in the background that gets on my nerves. It’s all so, well, 70’s. On the other hand, Christmas is about peace on Earth, good will t’ward men; but can this be reduced to “war is over if you want it?”
What Christmas is really about is something far more real than the mere absence of war. Yes, it’s about the Incarnation – God becoming man, and indwelling his creation. But, it’s even more than that; to look at Christmas as a mere anniversary or commemoration of something this happened long ago is to do Christmas – and us – a discredit. Christmas is a reminder of an ongoing incarnation; it tells us that even deism isn’t enough. God is not “watching from a distance,” nor is He merely an occasional visitor; Christmas marks the beginning of an ongoing presence of God among us.
Consider this: the Incarnation was not a temporary act. While Jesus was only bodily present on Earth for about 33 years, Jesus did not stop being the “God-man” after the Ascension. He didn’t leave his body in the tomb; it was resurrected, and it ascended with the rest of him. We look for Jesus’ bodily return, not some spiritualized version. When God became man, He made an eternal commitment; or rather, He demonstrated an eternal commitment that He had already made. Don’t be tricked by some kind of Platonic dualism that has us believe that Christmas is mere history; God indwells His creation, He indwells us, and He is present. With the birth of Christ, Heaven and Earth are joined together, eternally.
“Peace on Earth” is no trite holiday saying, and it’s not just talking about the absence of war. The absence of war would be nice, but it wouldn’t be enough. As Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. ” (John 14:27) The peace of Christmas is also not just a spiritual, internal peace. That, too, would understate the Incarnational reality of the peace of Christmas. The peace that Christmas represents, the peace that passes all understanding, is only possible where Heaven has invaded, and been joined to, Earth.
Part of the worship at Lutheran and Episcopalian services is the “passing of the peace.” More than just having the pastor declare a blessing of “peace be with you,” it is the congregation that blesses each other with peace; this practice reminds us that peace is not only ours to receive, but we have the obligation to “pass the peace.” It’s not just a good feeling, it is an incarnational act.
At Christmas time, singing, “War is over, if you want it” is to miss the point, to come up short of the real meaning of Christmas. What we should be singing is, “Peace is yours, if you want it,” recognizing the depth of what that really means.