The hottest Christmas gift of 1969, for many people, wasn’t the Slinky, the Nerf Ball or even Avon’s cameo soap on a rope; it was “Abbey Road,” the last album recorded by The Beatles. Released in the United States the previous October, the album had spent 11 weeks at number one before being displaced by “Let It Bleed,” by The Rolling Stones. By the third week in December, though, Christmas shoppers had once again made “Abbey Road” the top-selling album in America. The album’s cover, a photograph of the group at a zebra crossing in London, has become a nearly universally recognized icon of the Fab Four and their era.
I can assure you that “Abbey Road” was not on my mind when I picked the photograph for this week’s cover. In fact, it was a couple of days before I even noticed the similarity; I was just looking for something unconventional. You should know that the cover photo is not intentionally evocative of the Beatles’ album cover, nor has it been staged in any way. The shepherds and the Magi are actors, part of a live-human nativity scene that was organized outside the U.S. Supreme Court building this month. A Christian group had organized the event to demonstrate that such displays are protected by the First Amendment.
That said, you won’t find anything in this issue of America about that important yet impossibly tedious constitutional debate. Strangely enough, the contents of this Christmas issue have more in common with “Abbey Road.” Like many, Richie Unterberger, the pop music critic and historian, regards “Abbey Road” as one of the greatest albums of all time. The work was actually a miracle of sorts. By 1969 Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were barely on speaking terms and rarely worked together. At times, they were even recording their musical parts separately. Yet “Abbey Road,” says Unterberger, is the group’s “most tightly constructed” work and contains “some of their most intricate melodies, harmonies, and instrumental arrangements.”
So a group, one plagued by scandal, internal conflict, divergent personalities, some mutual contempt and even a bit of greed, managed in “one of their most unified efforts” to effect a great artistic triumph. Sound familiar? It should; it could describe the experience of the American church in 2012. In spite of everything—the partisan feuds, the lingering effects of scandal, the crisis of belief—the church got on with her work; the work of evangelizing, the work of healing, the work of justice. Amid all the in-fighting and the acrimony, new hearts were won for Christ, souls were nourished, the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, the sick were cared for. It was beautiful.
Still, the Lord calls us to more than unified action; he calls us to a union of hearts and minds as well. As our editorial puts it this week, “The one whose birth is celebrated at Christmas makes specific pleas for unity.” It is not enough simply to work together, to respect one another; we must forgive; we must love one another. Please don’t write the editors of America if that last bit strikes you as naïve; take it up with the Lord. He’s the one who said it first. He’s also the only one who can ultimately make it happen; the unity we seek begins and ends with the one who united himself to us. The unity we seek is unity in truth, the babe in Mary’s arms, that tiny, fragile human body in which truth became incarnate.
As everyone knows, The Beatles broke up just a year after “Abbey Road.” The church in the United States faces no such fate. Apart from the fact that there is much more hope than there is despair, we have the promise of the Incarnate One: “I will be with you always to the end of the age.” Count that as our greatest gift this Christmas.