The finest Christmas songs are never just Christmas songs. Though linked by reference of sentiment to the Christmastide, they are sufficiently universal in their themes to have meaning throughout the year. Surely this is why so many of us return with such frequency and glad tiding to Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus,” a song he first performed on the brilliant 1991 Chieftains album, “The Bells of Dublin.”

Over the ensuing 16 years, the song has become a favorite for celebrants of the season who suspect the Nazarene might be disinclined toward the commercial chaos that has come to characterize its contemporary expression.

So it was that, when Jackson Browne and I appeared together last week in New York, as part of the Culture Project brilliant series of discussions and performances on behalf of the impeachment movement, we spent a predictable period of time discussing the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush/Cheney administration, along with the prospects of replacing these lump-of-coal leaders with more deserving tribunes of the American promise — Browne’s an enthusiastic backer of John Edwards’ presidential campaign. But we spoke at somewhat greater some length of “The Rebel Jesus.”

Browne knows the song has taken on a life of its own, as all great songs do. Yet, through all the renditions over the years, by its writer and the many fine artists who have covered it, “The Rebel Jesus” remains fresh and renewing. Perhaps that is because Browne’s lyrics, world-weary and wry in their observations yet warm in their delivery, offer an ancient antidote to the dispiriting crush of commerce, the tyranny of schedules and the theft of meaning that can crowd the better angels of our nature at Christmas:

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

As the sky darkens and freezes

They’ll be gathering around the hearths and tales

Giving thanks for all 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

As they fill his churches with their pride and gold

And their faith in him increases

But they’ve turned the nature that I worshipped in

From a temple to a robber’s den

In the words of the rebel Jesus

.

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 they are poor

They get the same as the rebel Jesus

.

But please forgive me if I seem

To take the tone of judgment

For I’ve no wish to come between

This day and your enjoyment

In this life of hardship and of earthly toil

We have 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.