I wish I could say it happened in church. But I didn’t.
I first came to comprehend the meaning of the Christmas story through the animated TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Yes, for me, and for millions of other children my age –and millions more in the 40-years since– the time and place we most clearly first remember hearing the Christmas story was in the animated Christmas special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
And I hope you’ll enjoy my own version of Vince Guraldi’s classic “Christmastime Is Here”
Because, if you remember that story well, you’ll remember that at the key moment of that special is Charlie Brown’s friend Linus standing on an empty stage. The house lights dim. The bustle and joy of Vince Guiraldi’s soundtrack fades. The children quiet their fidgeting. And there, in incarnate-cartoon-form, Linus recites Luke, Chapter 2: 8-14. (King James Version…)
And as a kid, I remember being mesmerized. I remember being amazed. First off, it was amazing that anyone would memorize the Bible. Nobody I knew growing up memorized the Bible. But Linus did.
There was Linus, on national TV, reciting the visitation of the angels to the shepherds:
“For unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
The moment I saw that special was the very first time I ever really clearly understood that scripture. And I am not alone. If you search the internet, you will find hundreds of bloggers and writers –adult people in their forties, and thirties and twenties— who will testify to the power of that moment.
And because Linus memorized that scripture, I wanted to memorize that scripture too. And I did. I got out my Bible, and I memorized it. And I imagined, in my child’s mind, that one of the most incredible things you might ever do in your life is to stand alone on a stage somewhere and read that word, and have the power of that word affect people, like it affected Charlie Brown in that moment.
In fact, if you think of how many children have seen that TV special throughout the years –how many millions of kids have heard Linus read that scripture– you could make a pretty cogent argument that Linus is perhaps the most successful evangelist in modern time. Much more so that just about any TV preacher you could name.
And every year as a young child, I would wait for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This was back before VCRs, DVDs you could buy, or TiVos you could program. If you wanted to watch the show, you had to watch your TV guide carefully to make sure you didn’t miss its once-yearly appearance.
And I would do that faithfully every year as a kid in the late 60s and early 70s. I would watch, rapt, as every year the lights went down, the world got hushed…the silliness stopped, and Linus read to us all of shepherds, angels, and a little baby born “Christ the Lord.”
Well, anyway, I did memorize that scripture. And later, in the third grade, our Sunday School teacher gave out special prizes to anyone who could recite that story. I’m not sure she thought anyone could actually do it. So, one day in Sunday School, I just got up and did it….because Linus had already inspired me. In fact, you could make a case that part of why I became a minister was because I dreamed of being able to read that scripture to a crowd like Linus did.
Did you know that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” almost didn’t make it on the air? The network was sure it would fail. See Charles Schultz and Lee Mendelson decided to use real kids for the voices…not experienced “voice actors,” but just kids they auditioned off the street. Then, there’s the anti-commercialism theme. A network that survives on commercials wasn’t too keen on that either. Then, there was the Jazz soundtrack. And, finally –and this was the kicker that really got them– there was a character reading straight from the King James Bible. They were terrified about something so overtly religious being shown on network television.
Boy, were they wrong. Half the TVs in American turned in that first evening it aired, back in 1965. And this holiday season, a 40th Anniversary CD of Vince Guiraldi’s soundtrack was released. And for several weeks this December, it was the number one selling soundtrack; beating the pants of of folks like Madonna and Eminem.
One of the things I find fascinating about the show is it’s anti-commercialism theme. Yes, Charlie Brown is blue about Christmas. But it’s mainly because nobody around him seems to remember the real Christmas message. His dog, Snoopy, enters and wins a holiday lights competition. His sister, Sally, asks for cash from Santa Claus. His friends create a Christmas play with a “Christmas Queen,” And they send him off to buy an aluminum Christmas Tree.
Not much has changed about Christmas, really. Many of us still get blue around Christmas and can’t figure out why. And much of the time, it’s probably because of the overly commercial part of Christmas.
We decry its over commercialization. In fact, this season, some folks have gone so far as to declare that there is a “War” on Christmas. they have claimed that the commercial and secular influences are so pervasive that some folks out there are actively trying to kill off the spiritual and religious side of the day. In fact, in many a conservative church this holiday season, a sermon was preached about the “War on Christmas” and how horrible it is.
But, paradoxically, many of these same churches canceled their church services on Christmas Day!!! Isn’t that something? Did you hear about that?!! Many a conservative mega-church around the country have closed their doors today!!
They rail against the secular evils of society…and THEN, on the one day where the stores are closed….the commercial Christmas is over….the world hushes down….and the lights come up center-stage on the church, church, they just decide stay home!!?
Well, I don’t personally think there IS a War on Christmas. But I DO think that today, it’s still as it was for Charlie Brown 40-years ago. It’s still sometimes it’s hard to hear the Christmas message amidst the noise and bustle of our modern world. We find ourselves running from task to task….
…holiday party to holiday party…
…store to store…
…errand to errand…
And we too –even those of us with the best of intentions– find our spirituality covered up with those thousands of different tasks. Like Charlie Brown, we forget what the POINT of it all is.
Because, like Charlie Brown, sometimes in the midst of all the hustle, we still ask ourselves: “Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?”
And when we ask that question, the answer is still what Linus spoke, as the children hushed, the music stopped, the lights went down, and the spotlight came up on that lone figure, reading those powerful words of our faith:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly 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.”
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.