It usually happened every year of my childhood at the end of November or the first week of December. No matter what else is going on in our lives, we kids would demand that nothing interfere with our ability to take part in this cherished ritual. I'm not talking about Black Friday -- I'm talking about the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which first aired in 1965, just months after my birth. As hard as it is for kids nowadays to believe, this cherished classic was broadcast one time only every year, and until the invention of the VCR that was the only time that you could see it. It was probably the best thing that Coca Cola ever sponsored, in my Pepsi-loving humble opinion.
It was also one of the friendliest and gentlest ways to remind people of the reason for this particular season. The opening scene shows Charlie Brown and Linus walking through town and toward a pond to go ice skating with their friends. Charlie Brown suddenly stops and leans against a snow covered wall, which was a common backdrop in the Charlie Brown comic strip for when Charlie Brown was having a philosophical conversation with Linus, who was always wise beyond his years. Charlie Brown stares off over the wall and says to his friend, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess.”
And even all these years later, we know that Charlie Brown is not alone in sometimes feeling stressed, or let down, as much as filled with joy and anticipation during Christmas. In just the last few years, a tradition of blue Christmas services have sprung up mostly across the progressive end of the Christian spectrum to acknowledge and to make space for people who find Christmas to be an experience that can be a struggle as much as it can be a gift.
Charlie Brown's friend Lucy advises him that it might help him get in the Christmas spirit if he directs the Christmas play that the rest of the kids are putting on, even though Charlie Brown is more likely to get things wrong than right most of the time. And over the course of the show, we see that Charlie Brown knows what Christmas is not about: it's not about commercialism, or Christmas decoration contests, or asking for a bunch of gifts—not even real estate, which is what his friend Lucy wants every year. After Charlie Brown brings home a scraggly pitiful little Christmas tree to be the centerpiece of the play, only to be laughed at and mocked by the other kids, Linus steps in to remind everyone what Christmas is really all about.
Standing in the center of a single spotlight Linus recites from memory the King James version of the gospel we heard tonight from the second chapter of Luke, in all its simplicity and beauty. Linus then leaves the spotlight, walks over to Charlie Brown, and says “That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
With all the commercialization of Christmas that has gone on in the last century, especially since the invention of advertising, it's sometimes easy to forget that there's any sort of spiritual meaning of Christmas at all. Christmas has become a holiday that begins after Labor Day and fully occupies 25% of the year. . It’s about Santa Claus, and elves, eggnog, the smell of cinnamon everywhere whether you like it or not, and the mad frantic buying and wrapping and delivering of gifts. Christmas is about debating whether “Baby, It's Cold Outside” is playful or creepy; hearing Eartha Kitt coo at “Santa Baby,” or about whether Christmas itself crowds out other holidays of other faiths that happen to fall at this time of year.
Christmas has become a holiday that too often is severed from its religious anchor as being about the incarnation of Jesus through his mother Mary’s willing cooperation. Too many people can go all the way through Christmas season forgetting about the miracle that, as our reading from Isaiah reminds us, “a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; And he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
What lies underneath Linus’s gentle reminder to Charlie Brown and his friends is that Christmas is about reminding us that God is always active and engaged in the world. The sending of God's only son to live and heal and teach and care for us as one of us is itself a reminder that God always takes the initiative in reaching out to creation, and all our readings today reinforce this point. We do not approach God without God approaching us first.
Our reading from Isaiah reminds us that God brings about God's Kingdom of justice and righteousness -- this does not depend upon our own human abilities alone but trusts us enough to call for our discipleship in helping to bring it about, just as the incarnation could not have happened without Mary’s willingness to be the servant of the Lord. In Isaiah, the required human action comes in seeing: seeing a great light, which actually means seeing the world's cruelties and corruptions , and yet nonetheless insistently perceiving God at work within this world. Even in the smallest things.
Our psalm picks up this thread, observing and noting what God has done an is doing in the world --seeing God's works and blessings, ascribing and naming them specifically as being God’s gifts to us, and then being glad—or being grateful—for what God has done. Even more importantly, our Psalm reminds us that worship is over everything else a call to action.
One does not passively worship God by sitting in pews or by singing praise songs, no matter how catchy the tune. That’s entertainment. Worship goes beyond that—to carrying the meaning and glory God out into the world and making it visible for all to see in how each Christian live their lives.
God is working in the world—and thus this prophecy in Isaiah is as yet complety unfulfilled. Those who expected a great warrior king like the thrilling stories of David with his slingshot are going to be profoundly disappointed with the kind of King Jesus truly is—one who builds up rather than destroys, one who heals rather than wounds, one who comes not to overturn the Law, but to fulfill it, in Jesus’s own words.
This child who is born to us will grow to be a man who shows us what it is to be fully human—fully made in the image of God. One who will call us out of our own narrow view to a compassionate, passionate engagement with the world and especially with those who are suffering or oppressed in mind, body, or spirit.
Christmas is about hope. Christmas is about faith—faith in God and in each other. Christmas is about love. Love in action. Love found sleeping in a manger, leading us to the way of life we were meant to live from the beginning.
At the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas show, Linus wraps his special blanket around the poor pitiful little stick pretending to be a tree, and the other kids gather around it and decorate it. When they step back, it has been transformed from a scraggly stick to a beautiful, sparkling tree. the gift of love and care has taken something that was ragged and frail and turned it into a delight and a blessing. Just as Jesus taking on our flesh as a human who is also the son of God transforms us and challenges us to ourselves be a delight and a blessing to all whom we meet: all nations, all races, all creeds, all people.
That’s what Christmas is all about.