I wonder if any of you, before you came tonight, watched the TV tribute, It’s your 50th Christmas Charlie Brown. It aired for the first time around Thanksgiving, but not surprisingly, they picked Christmas Eve to rerun it in honor of this year’s being the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Along with documentary footage and clips from the original show, it includes performances of the songs by people like Pentatonix and Sarah McLaughlan.
Whether or not you watched the tribute, I’m betting nearly everyone here has seen A Charlie Brown Christmas itself. And I’m betting you remember the premise: near the beginning Charlie Brown gets in a funk and laments, “I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy.” And so he goes on a search for the reason behind what we’re doing here tonight.
It’s amazing how a cartoon show has proved so unforgettable. Schroeder playing Jingle Bells on the piano for Lucy, Sally writing Santa a letter that ends, “make it easy on yourself: just send money,” Charlie Brown seeing his sad little tree collapse under the weight of one ornament and exclaiming “I killed it,” and of course Linus, sucking his thumb and clutching his ever-present security blanket from which he can’t bear to be separated. (Did you know we owe that concept to Peanuts? It has an older use as a military term, but only thanks to Linus did “security blanket” come to mean something you hold onto to provide psychological comfort and ease your fears.)
Linus: he steals the show, doesn’t he? Charlie Brown’s in complete despair at his inability to get anything out of this season, he cries out for somebody to tell him what Christmas is all about, and Linus steps onto the stage of the school play to recite what? Tonight’s Gospel, which we just heard proclaimed by Deacon Chris. They were nervous, even 50 years ago, about putting so long a passage from the Bible on TV. Too controversial. But Charles Schultz’s long experience of personally studying and even teaching Scripture won out, and we heard the Word of God loud and clear. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
When you relate to Scripture the way we do as Christians steeped in the historic liturgy, you might know this Gospel reading from memory just like Linus did, because our style is to come back to the same texts year after year. Tonight’s Gospel, for example, is proclaimed on Christmas Eve over and over. Our experience as Episcopal Christians is that the Bible is a place to encounter God that has such depths in it that you could never exhaust them. You may not have experienced that yourself yet, but you can, if you want to. We can teach you how.
And one of the characteristic things you discover when you deliberately put yourself in that position, opening your mind and heart to the same piece of Scripture again and again, is that when you come to it in 2015, you hear something else than you did in 2014. The world is not quite the same. And you’re not quite the same either. You may have grown closer to God or more alienated from him this year, or you may have lived through a loss, or you may have had a child, or changed jobs, or whatever. And the Holy Spirit points out different things to you depending on where you are. So when you commit to this practice of coming to it again and again expecting to hear God, the Scripture is always fresh, even startling.
This year, the most startling line to me is the very first word of the angel: Do not be afraid, or in the Linus translation, fear not. We have a lot to be afraid of these days, or at least we think we do. I was at the gym the other day and someone had a magazine with a story on the cover titled “How to tell if your neighbor is a terrorist.” And it wasn’t The Onion! Anxiety is in the air these days. But that’s really nothing so new; people have always been afraid. Not too many decades ago life was a series of terrifying risks: diseases spread unchecked and wiped out populations, death in childbirth was common, clans and tribes went to battle all the time. The risks are less now, but our fears keep finding places to gravitate.
If the Gospel that both Linus and Deacon Chris have read us is true, however, God willingly took the risk of putting himself into a position where he had far more to be afraid of than you and I ever will. If God became incarnate in Jesus, which is the point of Christmas, he knows all about fear. He knows in Christ the terror of facing death, surely the biggest human fear, and not just death but a death that subjected him to public humiliation as an utter failure, something else that terrifies most of us. And even more, a death in which he descended, for our sakes, into the eternal blackness of all sin, all brokenness, all bigotry, all pain; for our sakes he went through hell, a pit of bone-chilling, heartbreaking darkness that none of us will ever have to face because he faced it for us.
Or maybe it’s not death and hell that scare you. Maybe it’s just looking bad or feeling inadequate. But Jesus has been there too. Remember, it’s Christmas. Jesus began his earthly life by taking on the vulnerability of a newborn baby: completely powerless, totally dependent on others for everything. No self-protection. No chance to put a good face on things. Just helplessness. Jesus knows that complete loss of control that so terrifies most of us that we do anything we can to keep ourselves from seeing it happen, to ourselves or others. And he knows such inability not because he was forced into it, but because he chose it freely for our sake.
None of that is what we’d expect or invent if, God forbid, we got to design our own religion. If we got to make it up, we’d probably self-soothe with stories about a powerful, top-heavy, in-control deity, undergirding our sense of self-sufficiency, running on the safety ticket with a huge support staff and lots of firepower to secure his victory.
It’s so strange to begin to hear him teach us that he’s not like that. It’s so strange to start accepting that all the things we’re too afraid to do, or are half-killing ourselves trying to make happen, Jesus already did for us. We don’t understand that the Gospel message “do not be afraid” has legs because there’s a sober truth behind it, anchored in what God has done in Christ. This truth makes it possible for “fear not” actually to work in human lives. Your life.
I think Charles Schultz understood that, and I’ll tell you why. When Linus proclaims the Christmas story, he does something I never noticed before this year. He’s reciting the text, gesturing with his ever-present security blanket. “There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields… and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them-- ” And when the next two words from God’s Word come out of his mouth, FEAR NOT, Linus drops the blanket. For one of the only times in all the years of Peanuts, his hands are free. He lets his false sense of security go and announces good tidings of great joy, emptyhanded, arms wide open. Linus drops the blanket, because if you really hear the message of the Gospel and believe it, you can.
I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not saying you won’t pick it back up now and again. Linus does. I certainly have at times. Trusting God is hard. Not trusting him is way easier, and that’s why most of us came in here with a security blanket of our own. Or two, or three. Or perhaps so many of them are hanging over your shoulders you can barely move freely anymore, and you just wish you could take a breath and spread your arms again.
If the Gospel we proclaim tonight is true, you can. If it’s not true, we probably should keep clutching our blankets, and even piling up a few extras for safety’s sake. But if God in Christ has already dropped all his security for us, then we can fear not. We can let go. We can receive the good tidings and drop the blanket.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.