Unlikely Christmas Carols: The Rebel Jesus

Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind you of who you are and what you should be about.

It helps, of course, if that outsider is keenly observant, a generous critic, and gifted with words and, in this case, musical notes. Such is the case with this week’s Unlikely Christmas Carol, “The Rebel Jesus,” by Jackson Browne.

Let’s start with Browne as keen observer. A day after describing Mary’s Magnificat as a “rebel song,” I can’t help but appreciate Browne’s perception that her son came to question the status quo, challenge the authorities and customs of the day, and generally turn things upside down.

But Browne isn’t an acute observer of the biblical story only, but also of what we’ve done with it. And so when he suggests that we have in our displays of devotion and petitions for favor actually fallen prey to Jesus’ own accusations, you can’t help feel the sting. Moreover, there is an ominous but, I think, historically accurate warning in his observation that while it may be fine at Christmas to give a bit  to the poor, “if any one of us should interfere / In the business of why there are poor / They get the same as the rebel Jesus.”

But if he is a critic, he is a generous one, making allowance for our failings by granting that “In a life of hardship and of earthly toil / There’s a need for anything that frees us.”

What I like best, however, might be the way in which he uses language and melody so deftly to both stake his claim for being an outsider – naming himself “a heathen and a pagan” – and simultaneously to identify himself powerfully with Jesus’ cause. A cause, I suspect, Jesus wishes many of us who take his name as our own would also pick up.

Jackson Browne wrote “The Rebel Jesus” for The Chieftains amazing Christmas album, The Bells of Dublin. Introduced to this classic by my younger brother two decades ago, I’ve since given it as a Christmas gift countless times as it is probably my favorite holiday album. The Chieftains, perhaps the premiere world ambassadors of Celtic music, enjoined the likes of Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, and no one less than Burgess Meredith to join them in making a spectacular recording.

I haven’t been able to find a live version of Jackson Browne singing this song, and most of the slide-show videos folks have made of it are of a later recording. So I’ll post a simple version of the recording below which, while lacking any great visual delight, is nevertheless a pretty good rendering of the original Chieftains’ version. If you want to see one with a later acoustic version by Jackson Browne and with some nice visuals, you can find that here. And, of course, I’ll put the lyrics below. Enjoy!

Notes: 1) If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click here to watch the video.
2) I found this Advent devotion by Jeff Dunn over on Internet Monk, which starts with lyrics from “The Rebel Jesus,” powerful. If you’ve time, I hope you do, too.

“The Rebel Jesus,” by Jackson Browne

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by ‘the Prince of Peace’
And they call him by ‘the Savior’
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgment
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus