A Sermon Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, AB
Christmas Eve, 2011
Lectionary Year B, Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
The hip and cool coffee retailer Starbucks (or “Tenbucks” for those of you who prefer the cheaper and more wholesome ambience of Tim Hortons, is very shrewd about its holiday marketing. As folks wait to place orders for their eggnog lattes, they can browse a small selection of music. The music, like the coffee, is usually very hip and cool, but at Christmas, praise be, Stabucks includes The Charlie Brown Christmas. Perhaps this selection is marketing aimed at nostalgic baby boomers like myself, who grew up with this cherished TV special. Perhaps its also aimed at hip, sophisticated types who will appreciate the jazz score by Vince Guaraldi. But it’s there, in Starbucks of all places, and it’s not called A Charlie Brown Holiday Special. It’s called A Charlie Brown Christmas. That in itself is so cool as to be practically miraculous, but not as miraculous as the story of the making of the little TV show that became an icon.
Back in 1965, in the slick, corporate America depicted in Mad Men, Charles Schulz and his business partner Bill Melendez had received a small amount of money to create a half hour TV Christmas special featuring characters from Schulz’s popular cartoon strip, Peanuts. The made the show on a shoestring budget and then went shopping for a netork sponsor and pitched the show to CBS. At first the network shied away from it. They didn’t like the child actor’s voices, the animation looked too primitive to them, and they didn’t think the jazz soundtrack would appeal to mainstream America. But most of all, the network suits were afraid of the Christian content. Not only did the Peanut’s gang sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” but Linus reads the whole nativity story from Luke, just as we heard it in tonight’s gospel. It took a last minute appeal by Melendez to personally sell the network president, who finally relented, even though he grumbled that airing the Peanuts special would mean preempting an episode of The Munsters.
The result was TV history. When it aired on CBS on December 9, 1965, the Peanuts Christmas special was seen by half of the households in the US. This show has become an icon, part of the memories and Christmas tradition of several generations. Today Canadian Tire and other retailers offer a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and a DVD collectors edition is available at Starbucks. Something in that half hour show, so primitive by today’s production standards, has touched a deep chord of hunger and need in millions of people over 45 years, and the reason for that is, I believe, quite clear. I believe that the real magic in that show comes towards the end, when Linus finishes reading the Lukan nativity in the ancient King James language and says “That’s what Christmias is all about, Charlie Brown”. When we hear Linus says that, we know in our hearts that he’s right, he’s nailed it. Years later, when Charles Schulz described how he had to fight to keep the reading from Luke in the show, and he told how he said to his partners, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”
As Christians we have a pretty clear sense of what the true meaning of Christmas. At its heart is the idea of Emmanuel, the promise that God is with us. The birth of Jesus reminds us of God’s love and solidarity with us, of his refusal to be a distant, unknown and feared God. We may not understand or grasp all the majesty and mystery of God, but in Jesus we have a way of approaching and understanding God and, because God’s son chose to share our human condition, we know that God understands us as well. We also know that the birth of Jesus is connected to God’s desire to rescue us by taking on all aspects of the human condition, including the hatred, fear, violence, and greed that we call sin. That is the connection between Christmas and Easter that is expressed in the Magi’s gifts of frankinscence and myrrh, things associated with funerals and burials, because Christ is born to die for our sakes. Christmas is about our rescue from loneliness, darkness and death.
All of these themes are expressed in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Think of Charlie Brown, plunged into darkness and despair by the cruelty and scorn of the people around him and by the soullessness and commercialism of a world that we only see at night. Then think of how Linus brings his friend out of this darkness through reminding him of Luke’s gospel story, helps bring Charlie Brown’s dying little scrap of a tree back to life, and reunites Charlie Brown with the other children, who are no longer scornful and cruel and have become gentle and loving. In his simple and brilliant way, Schultz uses the story of Charlie Brown to act out the themes of rescue, redemption and resurrection that are part and parcel of the gospel of the birth.
Tonight I’ve talked about stories that breath life and hope and magic into the world. The world of 1965 was different from the world of 2011 in many ways, and certainly far different from the world of Augustus and Quirinius that Luke takes us too. But in essence it was and is the same world. It was and is a world of darkness, a world made tired by fear and greed. But it was and is the world that God made and loved and loves today, the world that God’s son was born into and continues to be born into each and every Christmas It was and is a world that the light of Christ stubbornly comes to, whether in the flickering torches of the manger and the star from the east, or the flickering light of a 1965 TV show, or in the LED lights and displays of today, for across the years and to all of us “is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. Thanks be to God.