Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7
2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14
I didn't have much of a tradition of watching Christmas specials when I was a kid, but it was important to Nick, so now we've introduced some of these to our child. One of my favorites is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Apparently this show almost never made it to television. It used real children to voice the characters, something that just wasn't done. And it was too depressing! Those are two big reasons I love the show. If you haven't seen it recently, Charlie Brown just isn't in the Christmas spirit. It made it on the air because, the network paid up front for Charles Schulz to make the special, so they went ahead and aired it, even though they didn't like it. Of course, it turned out to be a huge success. It resonated with people.
We all like the story of an underdog, and that's why we like Charlie Brown. He can't do anything right. His friends are always picking on him. His dog is always outshining him. People give him rocks instead of candy to put in his Halloween bucket. His kite inevitably gets eaten by a tree. And he is often scowling or in a bad mood. Charlie Brown makes it ok to be grouchy at the holidays or any time, really.
But Charlie Brown is also complex. He has his friends over for Thanksgiving dinner and he and Snoopy feed them popcorn and toast, the only two things they know how to cook. He gets picked to direct the Christmas play. He usually gets picked up on the shoulders of his friends and celebrated at the end of the show. He's a regular guy who has a lot of ordinary days, some bad days that he makes worse with his bad attitude, and some moments of pure joy. He is a hero that we can all relate to.
There had been a lot of hubbub the last week or so about Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” that he is inseparable from his blanket during the whole show. But when he gets to deliver his line in the Christmas play, “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 Christ the Lord,” for this line he drops his blanket. He doesn't need it anymore. Because of the good news of the Christmas angel, he is not afraid. This is truly good news that gives him confidence to deliver his line, but also to stand on his own without his security blanket for a moment. At a moment when most of us would be very afraid, during public speaking, Linus finds himself comforted by the good news of Christmas.
There are several profound moments in this special. The other, more famous one, is the choosing of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Charlie Brown is sent to get the Christmas tree for the Christmas play. Why they sent him, I have no idea. You'd think they'd know what to expect from him! Of course he goes and picks the most pathetic, needle dropping tree you've ever seen that bends to the ground when an ornament is placed on it.
I love the symbolism. Charlie Brown, the underdog, chooses the underdog tree. He sees value in the unloved, the forgotten, the pathetic, and he brings it for the Christmas play, to redeem it and give it a place of importance.
The one thing I hadn't noticed before when I watched it this year, is that Charlie Brown goes to choose a tree and they are all pink aluminum trees. That's what the Peanuts gang has sent him to get. Charlie Brown and Linus knock on the trees and they give that hollow thump with a bit of an echo, like the tin man when Dorothy thumps on his chest. Charlie Brown doesn't choose his little, pathetic tree from among many green and stately ones, he chooses the only “real” tree in the place.
God could have chosen brighter and shinier, tidier and more grand, the more expensive and modern, and that's what everyone expected from the Messiah—that the Son of God would live in a castle and be protected and wear fine clothes and eat rich food. Instead, he was a real person, like us. Maybe that's the part of Christmas that really gets us. Jesus was found instead in a manger, a feeding trough among the animals, born in a stable. The Gospel says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Another word for sign in the Gospels is miracle. In the book of John, Chapter 20, verse 30 it says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples.” He performed miracles, in other words. “This will be a miracle for you, that you will find the child lying in a manger.” It was a miracle to find a child in a manger. The shepherds would have no doubt which child it was. Children don't belong in mangers. Even more of a miracle is that the Son of God would be found in a manger. Maybe to us it sounds cute and cozy, but truly this would have been a pathetic place to try to bring a child into the world, a pathetic place to be born, but very real, and very down to earth, an indication of where Jesus would be found throughout his whole life.
Jesus was often found where he wasn't expected to be, in the synagogue teaching at 12, at the Jordan River expecting to be baptized by John, among the lepers, among women and children, among the pathetic and small, among nobodies, among criminals, among the dead. He was seldom where he was expected to be and the same goes for this age, too. We find him in the pay it forward shops and soup kitchens. We find him wearing rags and sleeping in the elements. We hear him on the phone, he lost his job, his kid is sick, would we happen to have some extra food for his family. We think of him, far from home this holiday, suffering from grief this time of year, thrown out by his family after coming out of the closet, small and discounted, weak and tormented. But this is exactly who Jesus came to be and came to be among and within.
There was no room for him in the inn, in the fancy, warm, dry place of hubbub and privilege. So he finds the places where there is room. That is the miracle of Christmas. However busy we are, however little we have room for this pathetic, poor, bedraggled one, he is among us, a miracle right under our nose, waiting until we have room, until we are the one out in the cold or grieving, or until we realize that much of what use to fill our lives is much like those aluminum Christmas trees, fake and hollow, though glitzy. I think many of us realize it now, but we are just so afraid to let go of all that and stand vulnerable with our arms open to receive what God is offering, something real, something small, something meaningful, something living. And maybe he isn't even going to wait until we are prepared or ready, he is going to surprise us with his presence, ready or not, because we, too, are lost and hungry, feeling small and insignificant, weary of the consumerism, weary of the injustice, and maybe just looking for Jesus to surprise us and interrupt our very predictable lives with good news of great joy.