Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015 at The Church of The Ascension, Rockville Centre
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This year represents the 50th anniversary of a Christmas tradition that I am sure is near and dear to the hearts of many of us here. I, like many of you, grew up watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and although it is a part of secular Christmas, something of which I am usually very skeptical, there is a timeless quality to that short little cartoon that makes it stand apart from the countless other Christmas specials that those of us that grew up with television have been subjected to.
If you haven’t watched it in a while, let me just remind you of how it begins. Charlie Brown, your average boy in an average American town has a problem. He isn’t happy. It is almost Christmas and all of his friends seem to be in the Christmas spirit and Charlie just isn’t. What is more, to all of his friends, that Christmas spirit seems to be primarily concerned with a joyful expectation of what gifts they will get on Christmas morning. Everyone is busy filling out their letters to Santa, telling him all the things they want; although to be fair, Lucy does admit that she never gets what she really wants: real estate.
Think about this for a minute. Think about how much in our world and in our lives has changed in the last 50 years, or for that matter, in the last 30, or 20, or 10. So much has changed in the last 50 years, and yet even then, Charlie Brown’s biggest complaint is how commercial Christmas had become. No computers, no internet, no cell phones, only 3 television channels, and even then there was an underlying disillusionment with the celebration of Christmas, so much so that we would create a children’s cartoon television special to talk about it.
Were the makers of the Charlie Brown Christmas special simply being prescient in their portrayal of Charlie Brown’s dilemma? Were they being prophetic about how commercial Christmas would become? Or, were they perhaps touching on something that has been a perennial problem for Christians throughout the ages: namely, how do we remain focused on the birth of Christ, when the world seems to be trying to draw our attention elsewhere? Maybe Charlie Brown’s observations about Christmas are not so much a reflection on what Christmas was like 50 years ago, but about what Christmas has always been like and maybe that’s why his Christmas special still seems timely and relevant, when so many others are dated.
So I decided to do a little research. I took a look back at portrayals of Christmas through the 20th century and before. Since I have always been a fan of old movies, it was not an onerous task. Think of some of your favorite Christmas films…the classic ones. Miracle on 34th street for instance. That film is about the conflict between the material secular world and its commercial Christmas, and the real Santa Claus, who is far more concerned with what is in a child’s heart, than in what is under their tree.
Or take one of my favorites: The Bishop’s Wife, about an Episcopal bishop who spends more time at Christmas worrying about building his cathedral, than he does tending to the emotional needs of his family. Or take a look at one of the darker films of the genre: It’s a Wonderful Life…about a man driven to the brink of suicide because the material pressures of the world have blinded him to the true importance he has had for the people around him. Film after film, story after story, at Christmas time we find people who’s interior life is in conflict with the world around them. Even in Charles Dickens’s beloved Christmas carol, we have Ebenezer Scrooge who cannot see the deeper meaning in Christmas festivities, but only frivolity and waste. It didn’t start with the Victorians either…the Puritans were so disgusted by the outward celebration of Christmas that they outlawed it, which was of course not the greatest of their religious errors, but a grievous one nonetheless.
What my very informal and unscientific research has shown me is that at Christmas time we become acutely aware of a conflict. It is a conflict that is always there, but we are usually able to ignore it. Throughout most of the year it is very easy to go about ignoring any tension between our physical wants, desires and inclinations and the interior spiritual longing which we all possess, but not so at Christmas. At Christmas people are on their worst behavior, while at the same time singing and proclaiming their greatest ideals. People will walk on top of each other…kill each other…in order to get a material gift, which they will then give in a supposed celebration of Our Lord’s birth. Of course Christmas unsettles us, because it is then that we have to confront the fact that we humans are incapable of living up to our own ideals. We have been singing “Peace on earth, good will towards men” for thousands of years now and it still hasn’t happened. No matter how hard we have tried, and I do think we have tried, we just have not been able to solve the problem of human nature. Our technology has changed, our clothes have changed, our hair styles have changed, but on the inside…people are still the same. Let’s not mince words and just call it what the church has always called it: sin. Who God calls us to be, and who we actually are, are in conflict. We do not live up to our ideals; we cling to the wrong things, we choose lesser goods and momentary gratification. It was ever this way, we just usually ignore it, but at Christmas it is harder to do that.
Now you may be beginning to feel a bit Charlie Brownish yourself. You may be feeling a bit depressed and want to run off to the nearest person dispensing psychiatric help like Lucy, and question why we cannot just be happy, and why we cannot just fix ourselves and our world while we are at it. Well psychiatric help is excellent, and I think many people would benefit from it, but Lucy doesn’t have the answer for Charlie Brown. She can’t help him fix his problem. Only Linus can.
Linus proclaims to know what Christmas is all about and what people are celebrating. So he steps out on stage, calls down the lights, and begins to tell a story. It is a story from the bible, and for those who may question whether children can relate to and understand traditional liturgy, I always hasten to point out that Linus recites from the Authorized or King James Version. Linus proclaims the birth of Christ to Charlie Brown, and he says this is what it’s all about. All of that conflict that you are feeling between your hopes and your dreams and your reality…this is the answer. The war between our ideals and our sins…this is how it is going to be won: not by any device or scheme of our own, but by something that God has done. Perhaps it is no accident that Christmas is such a trying time, for so many people, because it is in that struggle, it is in standing in that place between who we are and who we want to be that we realize just how much we need Christ. My sisters and brothers this is what the incarnation is all about: how God conquers the problem of sin and heals our broken world, and our broken souls.
Anyone can look out at the world and get exasperated at the sins of man, but it is the person of faith that knows that God has already done something about it, and in that knowledge rejoices. That is what we are celebrating at Christmas. Not what we give each other, but what God has given us.
I have watched that Christmas special so many times that I thought I knew it as well as Linus knew the Gospel of Luke, but last week someone pointed out a little detail to me that I had completely missed. I am going to venture to say that a lot of you probably missed it as well. You may want to go home and re-watch it, because it really is a lovely little detail.
We all know that Linus is forever attached to his blanket. It never leaves his hands. It is his security in a world that can be dark and scary. It is a material thing that gives him comfort that he clings to with all his might, but as Linus begins his recitation of Luke’s gospel and the proclamation of Jesus’s birth watch what happens: he drops his blanket. That material thing that Linus loved most, that represented his protection from the scary world and all of his fears, for a few moments it winds up as merely a rag on the floor, dropped by Linus as he is caught up in the awe and wonder of what God has done through the birth of Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas. With Christ he no longer needs to be afraid of this world, with Christ he no longer needs to cling to the material things of this world for comfort and protection; God has given him everything he could ever need or ask for.
It is a little detail, easy to overlook, but there it is: Christ separating a little child from his fears. Linus picks the blanket back up at the end of his speech, but watch what happens later: when he discovers that Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree needs it more than he does, he lets go of it again…uses it to wrap the tree in the love that it needs to shine. What was once a thing to cling to has become a tool to love and support something that needs it more.
If the knowledge of Christ’s birth and what God has done to fix our broken world and our broken souls can transform the lives of children in a cartoon Christmas special, what can it do for us? Can we let go of our fears? Can we find in the proclamation of the birth of Jesus the answer and the antidote to the anxiety and the stress and the unfettered materialism of this season? Can we let go of anything that we are clinging to more than we cling to Christ? Can we for a moment just stand in awe and appreciation, recognizing that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves? And can we walk away changed…ready to use those possessions that we formerly coveted to help others who need them more?
Sisters and brothers that is our challenge tonight…but not just tonight. As Christians that is our challenge each and every day: to relate to the world differently; to be transformed by the knowledge of what God has done in Jesus Christ; to be subjects of the king that was born that night in the manger in Bethlehem, and to be the heralds of his kingdom.
In the end it doesn’t matter if it is the 1960s, the 1860s or the 1660s, people are still the same; human nature and human sin has not changed, but we can be changed. We can be transformed by knowing what Christmas is really all about. That has not changed. Not in 50 years, not in 200 years, not in 2000 years.
For a moment tonight, be Linus. Let go of whatever you are clinging to and simply hold on to Jesus. You will most certainly pick them up again on you way out, just as Linus did his blanket, but maybe, just maybe you will cling to them less tightly. Maybe you will learn like Charlie Brown, that this is the only part of all this Christmas stuff that actually needs to be taken seriously.
N.B. part of the inspiration for this sermon comes from an article that I shared earlier this week which can be found here.