Good evening, and again, welcome on this Christmas Eve night. Throughout this season of Advent we have been studying some of our favorite Christmas movies to find a word of truth and hope about the birth of Christ. We have looked at Elf, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Polar Express, and It’s a Wonderful Life. We are concluding the series tonight by considering a Christmas Eve message from the 1965 classic, Charlie Brown Christmas.
The Charlie Brown Christmas special was created at the request of the Coca-Cola Company, who wanted to sponsor a Christmas special in 1965.[i] CBS, who was to host the made-for-TV movie, contacted Producer Lee Mendelson, who contacted Charles Schultz, who literally turned around a story line in less than a week. Once accepted, Schultz, Mendleson, and the production team churned the production out in less than six months. Despite the short notice for production, and despite the intentions of CBS to air the movie only once (it was produced in less than six months – the quality wasn’t quite up to expectations), the movie clicked with viewers. It was an instant success, and still airs yearly for all to see.
What makes Charlie Brown Christmas so good that, not only is it still airing on TV some 50+ years later, but it’s good enough that we would be willing to use it as the foundation for the message about the gift of Christ on Christmas Eve? To answer these questions, I’ve divided tonight’s message into three sections to highlight the three areas of the Charlie Brown Christmas special that I think most connect with our longing for the birth of Christ, and the scriptural message of hope offered by God in the gift of Christ.
Our first response is about the brokenness we witness in the story line that follows Charlie Brown himself. Charlie is a most beloved character by all viewers, but that love is not as apparent from Charlie’s friends. Charlie is talking with Linus as the movie begins and says to her, “I think something must be 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,” he continues, “I always end up feeling depressed.”
Charlie was lost in his feelings, and was surrounded by his friends, his sister, even Snoopy, who all seemed to be buying in to the season – but Charlie just wasn’t feeling it. He was yearning for a happiness that just didn’t seem to be there.
Can we own that there are times in this season of Christmas that many of us feel like Charlie Brown? Can we name that in the midst of trying to get the presents purchased and wrapped, in the midst of grocery shopping and cooking, in the midst of decorating and planning travel for family and friends, that if often feels like we are lost and wandering in a land of happy people, wondering why we don’t feel that happiness? I think more times than we are willing to name out loud, we feel more like Charlie Brown than any of his friends.
I chose our first scripture reading with some caution. The story of Elijah running away into the wilderness is rarely, if ever, used on Christmas Eve. It’s not a story that easily ties into the story of Christ’s birth. But as I watched Charlie Brown, who was broken in his unhappiness, I found myself seeing how closely related Elijah was to Charlie. Elijah is one of our most famous prophets, second perhaps only to Moses. Elijah and Moses are of the highest esteem in the history of our faith.
Elijah, in an act of great faithfulness, called out his community for their worship of false gods. In response, he has to run away because his community turns against him; the queen of the land goes so far as to order him dead. Elijah goes through this season of being broken, even as he was seeking to be faithful. He experiences the earthquake, the fire, and the wind while lost on the mountain side. He seems to have no support, and he has no one by his side who understands his pain.
It is this darkness of brokenness that we all experience – the brokenness in the wilderness which Elijah experienced, the brokenness and unhappiness which Charlie Brown experienced, and the seasons of pain many of us have experienced this year – that makes tonight, that makes Christmas, so special. For it is this darkness, it is our seasons of brokenness, it is our time of hurt, it is for some the pain of experiencing Christmas away from home, without loved ones, or in a world that just doesn’t seem to make sense. It is because of this darkness that God offers his Son, the Christ-child, as gift of light. The prophet Isaiah says, “for it is such people who walked in darkness that have seen a great light; it is for those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”
We come to celebrate on Christmas Eve the good news of great joy, not because we have our lives so well put together that we are bringing the great joy ourselves, but because we are a people broken in hurt, pain, and living in the darkness of the world. We celebrate on this night because even in our darkness, even as we are lost and broken, there is good news, there is great joy, there is a light who has come to offer hope and comfort.
Charlie Brown is so lost in his brokenness that he’s willing to do anything and go anywhere to find the happiness he expects to feel at Christmas. First he goes to the mailbox, hoping and expecting Christmas cards. Perhaps they’ll bring happiness. But he finds nothing.
Charlie Brown makes his way to Lucy’s psychiatric booth, pays his five cents, and hopes to have her diagnosis his unhappiness. She can’t offer him any direct assistance, but she does invite him to be the producer for the Christmas play. He agrees to take on the role as producer of the Christmas play in the expectation that it will bring him the Christmas happiness he’s longing for.
However, leading the other children only frustrates him more, as no one seems to be listening and focusing on the task at hand. When given the opportunity, he leaves the school behind to go find the perfect Christmas tree for the play. Again, wandering, taking every opportunity he can in search for happiness.
Charlie Brown goes with Linus to find the perfect tree – one described as a ‘big, shiny aluminum tree.’ Yet, he returns with what will only ever be described as the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. It’s the only real tree in the lot, but it’s nothing special; it’s a two-branch tree whose needles are thinning by the moment.
He’s wandering and lost – seemingly without the hope and joy the season is supposed to have with it. But wandering in this season is not unexpected; we celebrate Christmas because of a story of wandering that marks the humble entrance of Christ.
Our Christmas narrative in Luke begins with a broad explanation, offering to us how it is that Mary and Joseph came to give birth to Christ in Bethlehem.
The Emperor Augustus called for a census to be carried out. Everyone in the land was required by the Roman government to return to their city of birth. For families, they had return to the city of birth of the husband. They had to return home so that the government could ensure they had correct documentation on everyone, allowing them to better oversee the taxation on the people. Joseph had been born in Bethlehem, known as the City of David, and so he and his fiancé, the pregnant Mary, set out to return to his hometown.
Can you imagine the exhaustion Mary and Joseph must have been feeling upon arriving in Bethlehem? Mary had ridden on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of just about 70 miles, while in her third trimester. I can only imagine the trip didn’t go as quickly as anticipated; can you imagine how many bathroom stops there would have been?
The trip took long enough that they arrived in Bethlehem later than the rest of David’s extended family. Any bedrooms not occupied on the regular at the family property were filled by now with other family who have returned for the census. Mary and Joseph are left with no option but to stay in the animal’s stable – likely a cave under the house – where they could stay warm. Their wandering ends and our story focuses in on the birth of the child, laid in humble manger, a feeding trough, the only bed space available for the Christ child.
The story of wandering starts with this broad political story of the Emperor’s demand on the entire region, calling for a census. The story then begins to narrow in on Bethlehem, the City of David, the hometown of Joseph. As the travelling of the couple comes to a conclusion, we are left with a focus on that which is always most important in any birth story, the mother and the baby. And finally, as our scene closes, we are left with a sole focus on the child, who has been laid in a manger.
Charlie Brown has returned to the auditorium with Linus, and he’s wandered enough. In desperation, Charlie Brown asks loudly, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Linus, who is standing next to him, holding his trusty security blanket in his hands, says, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Linus walks to the center of the stage, and then recites those same words we just heard read by Charlie Rydell this evening.
It’s a small thing to note, but you know what amazes me most about this scene in the film? Linus is standing center stage, lights dimmed, spotlight on, still holding his security blanket firmly in his left hand. He starts with these words from the Gospel of Luke, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” He’s telling the story of the angels who went out and invited the shepherds to go and meet the newborn Christ child. The shepherds were fearful – they weren’t expecting angels to come and announce the birth of the Messiah that night. They kept to themselves and were not akin to nightly visitors. Linus says, “they were sore afraid.”
Don’t blink or you’ll miss the most important clip of the entire film. Linus continues with the scripture reading, saying, “And the angel said unto them, “Fear not.”
When he says the words, Linus, quite visibly holding his blanket up, drops his blanket as he continues with the passage. What power the words he speaks have, even as he is speaking them. The words even overcome his own fear – he loses that which he always hangs onto for a feeling of peace and protection. “Fear not.” “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Everyone, no one excluded. This good news, it’s offered that no one need fear any longer. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
The gift of Christ by God, given to us, remembered on this night, comes that we may fear no more. Fear not from the brokenness, fear not from the wandering, fear not from the uncertainty and the unknown, fear not for being left out, fear not from unhappiness, fear not from the difficulties of life. Fear not. For given to you, offered for your life, gifted by God to you, a child is born – a Savior, the Christ, the Lord.
Without pause, the angel has barely finished speaking, “and there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”
Fear not, for the peace of God, the love offered in the Christ child for you and for me, is a light that will outshine all darkness. Fear not. Thanks be to God.