Tonight, as has often been my practice, I celebrate not only Christmas, but also an anniversary. This Christmas is a 50th anniversary — not just of the birth of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who turns 50 years old tomorrow — but the 50th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s single “Happy Christmas/War is Over.” They released this song 50 years ago this December, and it was the culmination of two years of anti-War activism.
In 1969, they had put up billboards in 12 world cities saying “Was is over! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” And two years later, in December 1971, they released their song, which began with these lyrics:
“So, this is Christmas, and what have you done. Another year over and a new one just begun. So, this is Christmas. I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, the old and the young. A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”
Later, John and Yoko are joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir who sing “War is over, if you want it. War is over now.”
I love this 50-year-old Christmas song, just as I love the Christmas stories from Luke and Matthew that are now more than 1900 years old. But why do we celebrate them every year since war is clearly not over and we still have a lot to fear?
John Lennon was killed nine years after releasing his Christmas song by a deranged gunman outside of the New York apartment where he and Yoko lived.
And church celebrations of the birth of the Prince of Peace haven’t prevented war, disease, and unnecessary death. Still, I don’t want to lose a chance to sing the old carols, to enjoy new Christmas traditions, and to gather with friends, family, and community in a spirit of joy and love each year.
Christmas 2021, like the one last year, is dogged by the pandemic even though the arrival of vaccines last December has alleviated some of our suffering. And every family and community have their own challenges and pains to deal with at Christmas as at any other time of year.
Nevertheless, our hope, peace, and joy culminate each year with Christmas Eve services and gatherings of love. This world is not exactly as we want it; but it provides the only space we can grow in spirt and comfort our souls. And so, each year we celebrate Christmas with as much abandon as we can muster.
I am so glad that John Lennon lived for 40 years and that as a member of the Beatles and as a soloist he created wondrous works of music. I am so glad that Luke in his own way and Matthew in his other way, wrote stories about the birth of Jesus. Whether things happened exactly as they wrote or not, we love the complexity, charm, and inspiration of these stories.
I am so glad that Mill Woods United exists and that it has given me eight Christmas eves to lead the community in song and reflection. Thank you!
I am so glad for our work of outreach and justice; our brilliant music director Bryan; and the rest of our staff and dedicated membership. We don’t achieve everything we want, nor do we live in the society we want. But we have this moment, we have wondrous legacies to inspire us, and we have so many chances to love and be loved, and to sing and be glad.
So, in the words of a 50-year-old song, I hope we will say again to each other with great joy “A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”
May it be so. Amen.
The preceding was what I wrote for a 7 pm service. Below is what I wrote for a much shorter and more “child-friendly” service at 4:30 pm.
Thank you so much Kim. Friends, I hope you liked this Christmas story. I thought it was splendid. But do you wonder if the events happen exactly as the story said? Who knows? The reading Kim gave us combines elements from two different stories in the Bible – from the one from Luke we get the shepherds and angels and from Matthew we get the Star. They both are really old – almost 2,000 years old in fact!
But more important, I think, than whether things really happened is the question: is it true? And the answer? Yes, yes, it’s true.
The same thing applies to thousands of other Christmas stories that have been told ever since: stories about Santa Claus, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, and many of the Christmas movies made over the years.
When these stories give us a sense of hope, joy, and love, they are true whether the events told in them really happened. For hope is true. Peace is possible. Joy happens so often in our lives, even when we have troubles. And love –family love, love between friends, and love between people in the community – it is always true!
Now, not every Christmas story meets the “Is it true” marker. I have a memory of watching a movie when I was eight years old. It was called “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” and it was the first movie I ever watched that I didn’t like. I loved going to the movies and I loved Christmas and Santa Claus, so I expected to love this movie. But it didn’t work for me.
Happily, I love most of the other Christmas movies I’ve watched, and I know they often tell something true even when they may not always be based on things that really happened.
This is what I love about Christmas. Even in a tough year like this one — with heat and cold and COVID and many other personal and social problems — love still conquers. And so, we come to church on Christmas Eve and we enjoy family gatherings that happen.
When a story has elements that make it seem real – even if some of the details make us sad, or scared, or upset – and if the story ends with love, we know it is true. We know it is Christmas. We know that we can sing, and dance, and feel great joy because the baby Jesus is born again in our hearts.
And that is my wish and prayer for you on this sacred night.
Merry Christmas everyone and a Happy New Year!