Christmas Eve 2015
William G. Carter
Does anybody know what Christmas is all about?
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The television executives were nervous. It was a week before “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was set to air, and they didn’t like the show.
Children were voicing the characters of children, and that had never been done before. There was no laugh track, unlike most of the television shows of the time. Some moments of the plot were moody and melancholy, and the jazz soundtrack didn’t help. The pacing was slow and the animation was too simple.
But the greatest objection was the speech that Linus made in the school auditorium. After contending with an unruly cast for the Christmas play, Charlie Brown cries out, “Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?” Linus steps forward and tells the Bible story about the birth of Jesus.
“We can’t do that,” complained one of the television executives. “A Christmas special can’t be religious. That will narrow the audience. We would be crucified.” That was 1965, shortly before the premiere. They discussed cancelling the show at the last minute, but somebody realized it was already in print in TV Guide. So they decided to run it once and bury it forever.
What they didn’t expect is that 45% of the viewing public tuned in to watch, and the show won an Emmy and a Peabody award. A lot of us have been watching ever since.
What is Christmas all about? Charles Schulz was most insistent: it’s about the birth of Jesus. It’s not about the aluminum trees, which went out of style in part because of the Peanuts special. It’s not about getting first prize in a house decorating contest. It’s not about telling Santa that you’ve been good, so he can reward you with “tens and twenties.”
“Oh no,” said Charles Schulz to producer Lee Mendelsohn, “if you take out the story of Jesus, there is no Christmas special.” A Christmas without Christ is no Christmas at all.
Of course, that is a disputed opinion. In 1965, only nine percent of all the Christmas shows on TV had any religious theme or symbolism, and that was fifty years ago. These days, it is entirely possible to have a secular Christmas, and many people do.
As Lucy said to Charlie Brown, “Let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”
But here we are, you and I, the keepers of Christmas. We know what it’s all about, and we have heard the angels again this night: “Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
This is good news of a great joy. It still is for all the people, even if they miss it or if they are weary of it, even if it prompts so much excess that it is hard to keep up with it. At the heart of Christmas is the birth of a Savior. He is born a child, so he will be vulnerable. His human birth sets aside his heavenly power as Lord, so he will be overlooked.
Jesus still makes a lot of people nervous. Not just the television executives and the advertising agencies, but kings like Herod who are threatened by his sovereignty. Those who pretend to have power so they can boss others around are cut short by the humility of a newborn child. Even all those kids who make fun of Charlie Brown and his little Christmas tree are silenced by the story of a God who comes to live among us.
The truth of Christmas is that God takes on vulnerable human flesh. God knows what it’s like to be blue at the holidays, and God also knows that unexpected joy empowers us to cut loose and dance.
So the message comes from the angels: “Don’t be afraid.” That’s the Good News. Don’t be afraid of a God who knows you as you are. Don’t be afraid of a God who loves you, in spite of your desire for a pile of “tens and twenties.” Don’t be afraid for God to come and find you, wherever you are tonight. God’s great Light will puncture the darkness and can interrupt you with joy.
“Don’t be afraid.” When Linus says those words to Charlie Brown and friends, he drops his security blanket. Go back and look at the cartoon some time, it’s there. He doesn’t need to hang onto his old securities because he trusts what the angels said is true. “Unto you is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The sacred breaks into our secular. The power of Life invades a world obsessed with destruction. A humble child is born to upend the brutal Empire of Caesar. That’s the truth of it. So we can look into the dark sky and know the Light of the World has come. And we can pray that somehow tonight or tomorrow or in the days to come, that Light will shine upon us. “Light and life to all he brings” - and this is the promise of the Gospel for you.
“Don’t be afraid.” A dark world has been punctured by the grace of God, and God is here among us. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.