Charlie Brown and Lucy are talking about Christmas. Lucy says, “At this time of year I think we should put aside all our differences, and try to be kind.” Charlie Brown asks, “Why does it have to be for just this time of year? Why can’t it be all year ‘round?” Lucy replies, “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”
I have few secret passions in life, but one of them is Peanuts, the Charles Schultz comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang. If you go by my office at church, you’ll see that I have a Peanuts Advent calendar [a gift from a friend who shares my appreciation for the strip] on the door. I started reading Peanuts in the daily paper in fourth grade, and I have followed the cartoon through all its developments—Linus’s struggles to quit the blanket habit; the birth of Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally; the introduction of Snoopy’s bird friend, Woodstock; the arrival of the first African American member, Franklin; the search by Snoopy’s brothers Andy and Olaf for their desert-dwelling sibling, Spike.
This season my bedtime reading has consisted of working through a book that collects all the comic’s yuletide cartoons, A Peanuts Christmas. The strips are memorable: Linus agonizing over having to recite the Christmas story we just heard in front of the PTA; Sally writing to Santa and rhapsodizing about the joys not of giving but of getting; Lucy slugging Linus because he shows her up by writing his thank-you notes more quickly than she does; Charlie Brown putting up Snoopy’s Christmas tree in his doghouse and asking if Snoopy would rather unplug the TV set or the clock radio. Peanuts is so much a part of my life that I cannot imagine Christmas without it. “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”
The Nobel Prize winning Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once began a poem with these words: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” [“December 24, 1971”] When you hear that you know it’s true: like the wise men, we’re all of us on our way bearing gifts. Like the magi, we’re all of us looking for something. Brodsky might also have put it this way: When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us children. A grown man –and a clergyman at that—lies in bed reading Peanuts cartoons because they evoke in him something essential about his feelings for the season. Parents and grandparents find pleasure in the joy experienced by their children and grandchildren because it reconnects them with something essential about themselves. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi. We’re all of us looking for that magical gift signified by the star. When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us children. We’re open to joy and wonder in a way we usually aren’t the rest of the year.
There are many things I love about my job, but near the very top of the list I would put the experience, two weekends ago, of watching adults and children bring their gifts to the manger scene here in this church at our yearly Festival of Gifts. Of course it was a joy to see the expressions on the faces of the children as they brought their gifts and placed them before the baby Jesus. But it was even more thrilling to see the faces of the adults—from the very youngest to the very oldest—because for a few minutes everybody in the building looked and behaved like children. In the presence of the infant Jesus, the faces of everyone in the church lit up from inside with light. Something in the moment evoked the child even in the most prosaic and skeptical adults.
Tonight we heard again Luke’s familiar Gospel account of Mary and Joseph going from Nazareth to Bethlehem, giving birth to Jesus, and laying him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. This story always moves and engages us because it speaks to something deep and primary within us. The picture of the Holy Family--Joseph, Mary, and Jesus--is the living image of each of us in our primary family setting. Each of us is that infant surrounded by love and nurture. This child is precious to its parents, and the parents are precious to the child. The Holy Family represents all that we long for and aspire to as human beings. When we look at the infant Jesus in this stable we see something about our essential selves to which we respond and reach out.
Now no fan of Peanuts would want to idealize childhood. Charlie Brown is often depressed. Lucy is usually aggressive. Sally is always self-centered. The society of children can often be a cruel and oppressive place. And so can the society of adults. From the start, we humans are a mixed bag. We can be generous and selfish at the same time. As we grow up, though, we adopt a lot of behaviors—some of them healthy, others destructive--that help us survive both childhood and adult stresses. And then Christmas comes around yearly and reminds us of a different way for us to approach the universe—from an attitude of trust, in a spirit of generosity. The picture of the infant Jesus in the manger is the image of human life in all its preciousness and possibility. It is this appreciation for the preciousness, it is this spirit of possibility, that I saw on the faces of those bringing their gifts to the manger scene at the Festival of Gifts. Something in that gathered Holy Family reminded and reminds all of us of who we really are and to whom we really belong.
“At this time of year I think we should put aside all our differences, and try to be kind.” “Why does it have to be for just this time of year? Why can’t it be all year ‘round?” “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”
One of my favorite writers on spirituality, the late great Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, says this in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He’s speaking of spiritual practice, but the words apply to the rest of life, too:
The goal of practice is to keep our beginner’s mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. [Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 21]
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” What makes children special is their openness to God, themselves, and the world. Even when they are selfish or cruel, children are still open to life in a way that we adults no longer are. This attitude of wonder, this radical openness, is what Suzuki means by “beginner’s mind”. It is what the poet William Wordsworth means when he speaks of childhood as a time of “splendor in the grass and glory in the flower,” a time when the world appeared to him “apparelled in celestial light” with “the glory and the freshness of a dream.” [“Ode: Intimations of Immortality”] Something in this Christmas story, this image of the Holy Family gathered around a manger this picture of a fragile child embraced by loving parents and worshipped by magi and shepherds, something in this recalls us to that part of ourselves that is open to wonder and beauty and joy, reminding us that life always has “the glory and the freshness of a dream.”
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Christmas is about rediscovering this radical openness, about seeing the world once again “apparelled in celestial light” with “the glory and the freshness of a dream.” How do we reclaim the days of “splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower?” How do we quiet our expert’s and empower our beginner’s mind?
For those of us who gather around the manger scene tonight, perhaps the best way to begin is to recall what actually happens there. Because the birth of Jesus is more than a blessed family event, more than an archetypal or symbolic enactment of human wishes. The birth of Jesus is the coming of God into human flesh and experience. The Good News of this night—the news that makes the shepherds quake with fear and rush to the manger—is the news that the child Isaiah speaks of—the child born for us, named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace—this One has been born to us in the person of Jesus. So although Christmas is about all the human wishes we bring to it, it is primarily about the coming into our life and experience ofGod.
And behind God’s coming into our life and experience there is a story—a story of human origins and failures, a story of a humanity getting lost and then found. So Christmas is important to us for many reasons, but chief among them is that God’s becoming one of us in Jesus is an eternal affirmation of us and our worth. We were lost and now we are found. The magi bring gifts to Jesus because he is precious. We give gifts to each other because, in the light of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, you and I are precious, too.
“When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” By his birth in this stable, God has ennobled human life and experience. From this point onward, every life has divine meaning because it shares in the divine life of Jesus and God. That is why Christians take human life—including all forms of suffering and want—so seriously. Every human life bears God’s divine image. Even and especially yours.
As we approach the dawn of Christmas tonight and tomorrow, let each and all of us awake to the birth of the precious child, not only in Bethlehem’s manger, but in a new attitude of wonder and hope. God has become one of us in Jesus. Your life is precious and holy and blessed in ways you might not even perceive or understand. You are now free to let that childlike part of you come to full and free expression in all your dealings with yourself and others and the world. God is with us. We have nothing to fear. We can drop our defenses and open ourselves up to the world. We can be as trusting and open as the child we see cradled with his parents in a manger.
The great preacher Phillips Brooks said it best in the last verse of hymn he wrote in 1865 and which we will sing later tonight:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
“At this time of year I think we should put aside all our differences, and try to be kind.” “Why does it have to be for just this time of year? Why can’t it be all year ‘round?” “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”Sure we’re fanatics. All of us. We’re fanatics of kindness and hope. We are radically open, like children. The birth of Jesus gives us strength and grace to put away our differences and be kind. And so we embark on a journey of hope and discovery. “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” Amen.