I know, I know: it’s Advent, not Christmas. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. And: we lit the candle of Joy this morning. We’re going to talk about joy—or the lack of joy—at Christmas. Charlie Brown is a perfect guide through this territory.
Please pray with me.
God of Christmas,
God of Advent
God of joy,
God of sorrows,
God who is present with us now and always,
May our words and thoughts and meditations be acceptable in your sight.
And may we be stretched to understand Advent and Christmas with new depth, compassion, and joy. Amen.
Maybe you’ve watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every year for decades and can recite all the lines, sing all the tunes. But just in case you haven’t seen “A Charlie Brown Christmas” 500 times and can’t quite recall the plot, here’s a quick summary:
Charlie Brown is depressed at Christmas. He’s trying to do all the things you do—wrap presents, send cards, decorate the tree—but it all feels hollow. His mailbox, which is cavernously, echoingly devoid of Christmas cards, just reminds him that he doesn’t have any friends. He’s not connected or seen or valued. He says, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” I suspect that some of us can relate.
So he’s living in a pretty low space, and he’s looking for the meaning of Christmas. His dog Snoopy is decorating his doghouse to win a display and lights contest. His sister Sally has Charlie Brown write a letter to Santa detailing size and color and quantity of everything she wants and feels she deserves, and if Santa can’t bring all the items, money will do, preferably in tens and twenties.
With both of these—the focus on massive decoration, the focus on greed and gifts—Charlie Brown recognizes that these are not the meaning of Christmas.
Charlie Brown tries directing the Christmas pageant, but no one listens to him. When he goes out to buy a tree for the pageant, the other kids suggest he get a big pink aluminum one. He comes back, of course, with a puny real tree that can barely support the weight of one colored ball. The kids call him stupid and blockhead and laugh at him. He feels terrible. He cries out, “Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”
And Linus, the resident theologian, recites Luke 2:8-14 to him: shepherds watching their flocks by night when an angel comes and brings good news of great joy: unto us a savior is born.
This is the pivot point in the whole special. Charlie Brown leaves the pageant and walks home with the little tree. The other kids, for once, keep their mouths shut. Perhaps they see that they’ve pushed him too far. He resolves that he’s not going to let any of them ruin his Christmas, but he’s left alone. So when he walks off and leaves the tree, the other kids pull the decorations off Snoopy’s doghouse and decorate the little tree. Then they gather around it and hum “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” When Charlie Brown comes back, they all yell, “MERRY CHRISTMAS, CHARLIE BROWN!” and then he joins them in singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” They all sing together. He is seen and affirmed and included. The end.
What brings you joy at Christmas? [Input.]
I’m hearing a lot about connecting with people. I think that’s at the crux of the Charlie Brown Christmas: he’s not connecting to people who see him and value him just as he is. So the good news of great joy that the angels announce for all the people is that God sees us, God values us, and God cares enough about us to become incarnate and walk among us trying to make things better. And this good news is announced, not to kings and priests, but to shepherds, the Charlie Browns of their day, out there away from polite society. Shepherds were considered very low in the social order. They probably didn’t get much chance to follow the rules about what is clean and unclean according to Jewish law. They didn’t socialize much except with each other. And they’re the ones to whom the angels bring good news: God loves you, and you are not only invited to God’s celebration; you are the first ones to be invited.
Imagine if the angels came to Charlie Brown and said, “You’re the first one to hear the good news. You matter. You are more loved and valued than you can possibly begin to take in. Go and spread the good news.”
The past few Christmases have been unlike any others that most of us have known because of the pandemic. We had to step back, scale down, reinvent how we mark this holy day. We missed getting together in large family gatherings, but we learned how to gather on Zoom. Or we all tested and took a chance.
For some of us, this Christmas comes just as we’re getting over COVID, or recovering from surgery, or dealing with the vagaries of aging bodies. For some of us, Christmas Day may be spent mostly or completely alone. Some of us are celebrating Christmas for the first time without a loved one. So we get to listen to our bodies and our souls and figure out what we’re up for. Can we do the family get-together? Do we come to the Christmas Eve service in person or on Zoom? Recognizing the decrease in energy or the grief that can come does not have to mean that there is no joy. It just may be mixed with sadness.
One of the things that brings me joy at Christmas is a Christmas Eve gathering that I have attended for several decades now, where I see good people, have good conversations, and eat good food. My mom, who was always an extrovert, loved this gathering. But last year, for the first time, as her memory issues where becoming more pronounced, she found this gathering overwhelming. She connected with a few people but kind of felt left out. This was a sign to me of her changing capacity for being with a whole group of people. So we will raise a toast to her this year and remember her with joy and think of all the love that she gave to each of us for so many years. And also recognize that she was ready to go. So: joy and sadness, both at once. And that’s okay: it’s real.
Back in 1513, Fra Giovanni wrote,
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.
And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
Take joy. Recognize it. Practice it. Savor it. And spread it around. Amen.