Maybe more than any other time of year, Christmas is a time that comes to us in sounds and smells. Think for a second what they are for you. Is it the piney smell of the greens … or of a mother or grandmother’s baking. Is it, as it was in my house growing up, the sound of the BBC broadcast of Lessons and Carols at Kings College, Cambridge … or maybe even the barely distinguishable sound of snow landing on snow on a still winter’s night.
Smells and sounds do for us what our oldest stories do – they bring the past living into the present so strongly we feel like we could almost reach out and touch it. And Christmas smells and sounds are some of the most powerful of all.
But for me, there is one sound in particular that it wouldn’t be Christmas without. For most of my life, it hasn’t truly been Christmas until I heard one thing. And I’ll bet for many of you, it was true too. I want to share it with you, so close your eyes for just a minute.
How many of you are like me? For how many of you is Linus’ monologue from a Charlie Brown Christmas one of the most powerful and enduring sounds of Christmas in your life?
I don’t know how many people who have told me that they’re just like me … that it’s not Christmas until they’ve heard Linus say, “Behold” or “and they were sore afraid.” Linus’ voice telling the story is like a warm and cozy blanket to snuggle underneath. But it’s more than that. Linus’ voice is more than just another familiar sound of childhood. Linus’ voice is the perfect voice to tell this story. Because Linus is at once the voice of childlike wonder and absolute certainty. He paints a wondrous picture of angels singing and God reaching down to kiss the earth and then walks over to his friend and says as if it was the most self-evident thing in the world, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
But this Christmas as I heard this story, what resonated in my heart wasn’t so much Linus’ words as it was Charlie Brown’s cry that brought it all on.
Charles Schulz once said that the reason so many people connected with Peanuts was that everyone wishes they were Snoopy but most of the time we feel like Charlie Brown. And there may be no words that resonate more deeply with us than Charlie Brown’s cry tonight: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
There is an exasparation to Charlie Brown’s cry. A weary hopelessness. The story of a Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t just a rant against commercialization – that’s way too simple – it’s a quest for deep meaning. Charlie Brown is who we are so often – someone who gets so wrapped up in trying to do everything right, and often feels like he just keeps coming up short, and wonders if this is all there is? And his cry is not just our cry, it is a cry as old as the ages.
It was the cry that Shakespeare put on the lips of Macbeth when he mourned that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is the cry of Bono when he sings, “I have climbed highest mountain, I have run through the fields, only to be with you. Only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
What does it all mean? Can someone help me? Does any of this really mean anything?
Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?
This week, Robin and I were talking about our son, Schroedter, and how Christmas is tough for a fifth grader. You see, by fifth grade, you really have reached that point where there’s a loss of innocence about things like Christmas. But around that time, more than that all too often we lose something even more precious. We begin lose our sense of wonder. Our sense of the world as an amazing, magical place where if reindeer can fly then anything is possible. And like nothing else, the loss of wonder leaves us thirsting in the desert. We crave wonder. And perhaps more than anything in all creation right now, wonder is what we and this world most desperately need.
It’s not that wonder isn’t out there. It’s just that we treat it like some kind of high-carb food we’ve convinced ourselves is hazardous to our health. That it’s OK for kids but not for grownups.
We listen not to the Gospel that tells us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves but to one that tells us to be wise as serpents instead of innocent as doves. A world that tells us that dreamers are impractical, seeing is believing and conventional wisdom is king.
And we’ve done it to ourselves. We have successfully divided everything into two categories – the rational and the irrational. That which can be logically proven and everything else, with thoughtful, grown-up people being on the rational side and everyone else labeled either superstitious, naive or just plain nuts.
And the biggest casualty in all this is wonder. Our openness to the glorious unexplainable, unprovable and impossible. The questions that are so deep that reason alone cannot provide an answer to satisfy not just our mind but our heart and our spirit. The answers that are so profound precisely because they cannot be expressed and explained but only felt and experienced like chords resonating deep in our souls.
And so while Charlie Brown asks a child’s question, his question is not a childish one. It is the question that draws us here to this table every time we gather, but especially this night where we long to hear and taste and smell again the wonder we once felt not only those Christmas nights and morns of years past where magic and wonder were still in the air, but with all those experiences of our lives that used to fill us with wonder but have somehow become routine.
It's that tentative first kiss that set our hearts on fire that has turned into the quick smooch on the way out the door. Love you. Love you, too. Bye! Bye! The first grasping of our child’s tiny fingers at birth that has turned into the wave as they drive away or the tap of the fingers to keep in touch in an email. The package under the tree on Christmas morning that just might hold our heart’s desire that has turned into the list of people we have to buy for before our Christmas work is done. The cloudless night where we lay on our backs and gazed at the infinite heavens that somewhere along the way has turned into a life where we can’t remember the last time we drew the big dipper in the sky with our finger and wondered if there was anyone out there looking down at us?
We know there is more to life than bottom lines and to-do lists, than rational explanations and sensible plans. And we know it not because we can prove it but because at the most important, meaningful and wonder-filled times in our lives, we have felt it. We have felt our hearts soar and sing. We have been amazed and astounded. Deep inside we know we remember what it’s like to have our eyes as wide as saucers and a smile so huge with surprise it felt like we could inhale the whole world.
But sometimes we feel so far away from that. Sometimes, as we live in our world of unemployment, home foreclosures and family stresses that would drive the Cleavers and the Huxtables into family counseling, wonder seems like a naïve and fleeting dream no matter how much we crave it, and so we cry from the depths of our heart with Charlie Brown, “isn’t there anyone … who knows what this is all about?”
… and then, this night, with that cry still echoing in the gathering stillness, the voice of a child gives us the answer. Not in a formula or a rule or an explanation that makes good sense, but in a love story.
“And there were in that same country shepherds, abiding in the fields, 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 behooold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, ‘tis Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You 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.”What’s it all about? It’s about a love story. And what is more wondrous than that? It’s the story of a God who loved us so much that he could not bear to be separated from us. A God for whom no mere embrace was close enough. No this is a God who had to become one of us. A God who reached down and kissed the earth with all the tenativeness and wonder of that first kiss, the divine heart at once both soaring and breaking.
What’s it all about? It’s about a story of a long time ago in a place far, far away … and yet like all wondrous stories it is a story that cannot be bound by time and space. It is a love story … the story of God and us.
What’s it all about? It’s about a story that holds in its hands an invitation for each of us and all of us. An invitation for us to be people of wonder once more, because being filled with wonder is what we were created for.
It’s an invitation for us to kiss and be kissed like it’s the very first time. To touch each other’s fingertips and be touched like with each handshake we are witnessing the miracle of new life reaching out to us. To see each person we meet as a wondrous Christmas present with the gift of a unique life and a unique story inside just waiting to be unwrapped and embraced. To lay on our backs and gaze at the heavens knowing that there are not only saints and angels looking down on us but that even as we cry out “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” we are being loved and held by a God who is still not content to just look down on us from above but remains Emmanuel, God with us, closer than the air around us, in this very room this holy night.
This holy night we are invited to be people of wonder once more. Invited by a God in Jesus Christ who even as we sit here is whispering love in our ear, kissing us tentatively, gently and with soaring and breaking heart hoping that we will kiss God back.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.