The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Eve - Solemn High Mass
December 24, 2017, 10:00 p.m.
Tonight on Christmas Eve we hear again the story of the angels, the angels who announce the birth of Jesus ,the Christ Child, in the manger at Bethlehem.
At 4:30 this afternoon the children helped us build the crèche which you see behind you, the visual representation of our collective memory, helped out by Saint Francis and early writings, of what things might have looked like when Jesus was born to Mary, right there in the manger. We’ve laid the figure of the infant in the crèche this very evening, in procession, and we’ve prayed. And I hope you have in your mind’s eye a picture of the reality of this event, the Word made flesh, Jesus come as a baby, into the world. I love this part of Christmas--the crèche, the angels, the story.
But I confess to you that every time I hear that story read aloud, especially in the Authorized version, another image I have, a complementary image, is the one from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special from 1965.
Do you know this television special? It’s run, pretty much every Christmas, since it premiered in 1965. The thirty-minute animated special, based on characters created by Charles Schulz, was a bold experiment for the CBS network and for the Coca-Cola Company and its ad agency, McCann-Erickson. The network executives were nervous when they first saw the show: there was no laugh track; children’s voices exclusively voiced the characters and sang the music; a jazz soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi trio accompanied what Charles Schulz himself called badly-drawn characters. The sound was bad (by modern standards), the animation barely matched the dialogue. It was rough and clunky. And, to top it all off, the highlight of the entire show was Linus, the anxious blanket-wielding character of the comic strip, reading the passage we hear in tonight’s gospel, the angels announcing the birth of Christ. 
The network executives were nervous. McCann-Erickson were nervous. But the time slot had already been reserved, and the quickly-drawn show was televised in what executives were sure would be a flop. “This isn’t very good,” the ad man at McCann said when he saw the screening. With no way out, the network went ahead and aired. And everyone was astonished when they realized that fully one half of all American households with television sets had tuned in that night. The show was a huge success. And it’s run every year since, without the corporate sponsorship.
If you remember the story line you might have some ideas about why the show was and is such an iconic hit. Blockhead Charlie Brown, in his yellow shirt with zig-zag stripes, always gets everything wrong. He’s down, massively depressed, about the commercialization of Christmas. Everyone is making fun of him. And yet, in the midst of this depression, he’s asked to direct the school Christmas play.
There’s music, there are costumes, and there’s a cast--there’s little for Charlie Brown to do but follow the script and tell the shepherds and angels where to go. But there’s one little detail; he must get the Christmas tree for the set. And, as usual, Charlie Brown can’t get it quite right. He selects the smallest, the thinnest, the puniest little tree--one so small it can’t even hold itself upright when an ornament is hung on in. And so once again Charlie Brown is jeered; he can’t get anything right. “What kind of a tree is that?” “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.” “You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.” “Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.” And in his frustration and despair he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
And Linus comes forward to the center of the stage and says, “Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”
And he reads the passage from Luke that we heard tonight:
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. (Luke 2:8-14)
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” Linus says.
Charlie Brown goes home, determined not to let his Christmas be spoiled by commercialism, but he’s still thwarted by the little tree. Discouraged, he abandons it, but his friends come behind and decorate it. And suddenly there is peace and goodwill; everyone admires the tree, and the cast of characters bursts into a rendition of “Hark, the herald angels sing.”
It’s good that Charlie Brown escapes the commercialism of Christmas to find its true meaning. And believe me, the irony is not lost on me that, ultimately, the first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas was, in effect, a big commercial--sponsored by a multinational corporation at the direction of its ad agency. Maybe it’s Vince Guaraldi’s score, but every time I watch it I come away with a warm, fuzzy feeling--that there can be peace on earth, and goodwill among all people--even the underdogs like Charlie Brown.
And that’s okay, I guess. But it’s a little thin. Like a commercial that makes me feel good about something--that might create positive associations with a product or brand. Everything’s okay, I could walk away feeling after watching Charlie Brown.
But we know things aren’t okay. Things weren’t okay in 1965. Kennedy had been assassinated. Vietnam was getting bigger. The march from Selma to Montgomery for the Voting Rights Act, the Pettus Bridge Crossing, was in the minds of Americans and had been in the scenes of the media. Things weren’t okay in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s birth. Mary and Joseph were called there for a census, to be taxed, as part of the government of an occupied land. If we believe Josephus, there was violent fighting among different factions within Judea. And Matthew tells us that the Herodian government, pawns of the Roman empire, were so nervous about their tenuous hold on the crown that Herod would call for the execution of all infant males under the age of two when he found out that people were talking about this Jesus as a king.
Where is peace on earth, and goodwill among all people? Good grief, Charlie Brown!
I mean to suggest that there is something more than a fuzzy, feel-good association with Charlie Brown, with Linus reading this story of the angels, with the story of Jesus in the manger, with all of it. The passage that Linus reads is the bit about the angels announcing to the shepherds what’s happened. The pith, the core, of the whole story. Told by God’s own messengers--told by Linus--to the shepherds.
Why is the story told to the shepherds? Think about them. They are always outside, in the cold, with the sheep; they’re functionally homeless, at least for part of the time. They don’t necessarily own the sheep; they’re likely watching them for someone else. They don’t control the means of capital production. They’re laborers. They’re sleeping rough. They and the sheep entrusted to them are at the mercy of wild beasts and bandits. They probably haven’t showered for days. For weeks even. They’re pretty unsavory.
And they’re vulnerable.
And that’s who the angel appears to. The very next humans to learn of the birth of Jesus, right after Mary and Joseph, are the shepherds. Don’t be afraid, shepherds! There’s good news! There’s a new king! A new anointed one! A messiah! He’s in Bethlehem, in a manger! Hurry and go there! And they did. In their hope, in their expectation, they ran to Bethlehem and found the child. It was true! And then they went out and told everyone they met.
What would you think if a homeless person came and told you that the Saviour of the World had appeared to her, down on the New Haven Green? Whatever you’re thinking, that’s probably about what folks thought when they heard the shepherds’ stories.
And yet those were the messengers the Angel chose. Those were the folks that God entrusted with the first news of God’s own Son, born into the world. The angel didn’t go to the king or even to the emperor. The angel didn’t go to the bankers or the analysts or even to the sages and academicians. The message wasn’t sent to the beautiful, the wealthy, the lovely, the powerful. The birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds first. They were the first ones told of this good news.
Friends, there are a whole lot of people on the margins of our empire right now. A whole lot of folks that, well, maybe feel a little like Charlie Brown. There are lots of shepherds. And the good news of this new king, of Emanuel, God with us, is for all of us--and especially for them. For in the reign of the Kingdom of God, the reign of the Prince of Peace, everyone is beloved. God has come among us--and the first to hear it are the shepherds. If you’re feeling like King Herod, if you’re feeling like a shepherd, if you’re feeling like Schroder the pianist, on top of your game, or if you’re feeling like Charlie Brown, God has come to show God’s love for you. Even in the midst of suffering or fear or anxiety, God has been born in a manger for you.
But God doesn’t show up only for you, for me. God shows up for all of us. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, even atheist; rich, poor, housed, homeless; powerful, weak, showered and street-worn. God shows up for all of us. But first he tells the good news to the shepherds, because they need to hear it most.
The good feeling, that warm fuzzy feeling I get watching A Charlie Brown Christmas is, at its core, a feeling of hope that even I could be loved. The hope--the knowledge--that God who sees even our unloveliness loves us fully. Loves us so much that God comes to be among us. As one of us. That God won’t let us go.
Charlie Brown’s world is changed when his friends decorate the Christmas tree he’s bought; when they show him just a little kindness. What are we doing to love the shepherds among us? How are we loving one another? How is our government, our public policy, manifesting the values of love? How is peace and goodwill, that little reflection of the kingdom of God, being exercised--and what’s our part in it?
You already know the story. You’ve heard it tonight, you see it in the crèche, we’ll sing it in the carols and hymns, and we’ll receive it in the sacrament of Christ’s own Body and Blood. God God’s very self has come among us. How are we going to help tell that good news to the shepherds? To you, and to me?
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. (Luke 2:10, 11)
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
I pray for you--I pray for us--a merry Christmas.
 For analysis of its contemporary reception, see Carrie Hagan’s article “The ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Special was the Flop that Wasn’t,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 9, 2015, accessed online at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/charlie-brown-christmas-special-history-television-classic-cbs-180957490/ (last retrieved 12/23/2017)