I was out shopping the other day, a mix of personal and charitable. I was enjoying buying German holiday treats like lebkuchen and speckulaas, and I was also picking up canned goods for our congregation's Christmas food basket ministry that we do around all the holidays for a couple of local programs. It was a good day, fun AND fulfilling at the same time. I turned the corner and entered an aisle with several non-food items, gifts and the like, when I saw the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in a box for sale. I was stunned. I snapped a photo and sent it on to Twitter calling for folks to place it in the "Horribly ironic Christmas decoration" category.
It should not come as a surprise that the Charlie Brown Christmas special is a favorite or mine. Not only is it the only special that centers Christmas on Jesus by reading Luke 2, it also captured a dissatisfaction with the growing commercialization of Christmas forty-five years ago. Now this post is not a rant about the "true meaning of Christmas." After all, Christians themselves participate in a bevy of rituals around Christmas time, not all of which are explicitly Christ-centered. They are ways to celebrate. What motivates us to celebrate is multi-faceted. And when Christians celebrate, others join in, even if they are not as seemingly pure as ours are... whatever that could mean. Christians at any rate over the past few centuries made an effort themselves to strip Christ away so the society around us could partake in the values that we saw in Jesus, but just based on reason alone. Christianity opened the door to this way, and tried to instill values and ethics based on a Christ-less Christianity.
But I do wonder about this tree. Without a distinct understanding of Jesus and his story, I don't know if the tree makes any sense. Under orders from Lucy to get a Christmas tree for their Christmas play, "a big, shiny, aluminum tree" she barks, Charlie Brown goes, but he cannot look past the only real tree on the lot, a miserable-looking tree that is copied almost exactly in the fake tree in the box. The reality that gets overlooked, I think, in this scene is that the tree is supposed to be like that. The tree that Charlie Brown cannot take his eyes off is a miserable tree. He does pick a lousy tree. And if I were trying to sell fancy aluminum trees (Did they really makes those back in the 60's? I suppose folks will ask if we really made and sold fiber optic trees fifty years from now), I imagine that the only real trees I would have around would be the miserable and pathetic real ones with gaps in the branches and a warped trunk, so people would be motivated to buy my modern, perfect and fake trees.
The tree that Charlie Brown picks is not at all suitable for a celebration of the birth of Jesus. This tree is not at all suitable for anything, not even bearing a bulb when after being criticized by his friends for choosing such a tree, he drags the tree home and tries to place one little ornament on it. Charlie Brown's efforts are miserable. But his friends do ultimately show pity on him. They follow him and find the tree abandoned in the snow. They use the award-winning decorated doghouse of Snoopy to transform that tree into a real beauty.
My friend Phillip over at Said Another Way had commented to me a few years back that this scene is a wonderful image of the Blessed Exchange of which Luther spoke. Luther comments in a sermon:
Is not this a beautiful, glorious exchange, by which Christ, who is wholly innocent and holy, not only takes upon himself another’s sin, that is, my sin and guilt, but also clothes and adorns me, who am nothing but sin, with his own innocence and purity? And then besides dies the shameful death of the Cross for the sake of my sins, through which I have deserved death and condemnation, and grants to me his righteousness, in order that I may live with him eternally in glorious and unspeakable joy. Through this blessed exchange, in which Christ changes places with us (something the heart can grasp only in faith), and through nothing else, are we freed from sin and death and given his righteousness and life as our own.
Luther, M. (1999, c1959). Vol. 51: Luther’s works, vol. 51 : Sermons I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (51:III-316). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
The tree is us. We are imperfect and not at all suitable for any celebration of Jesus' birth. But we are real. We are not artificial marvels perfected by technology, which removes our blemishes. We living human beings with whom Christ trades places. I just don't know if buying a fake Charlie Brown Christmas tree fits... a perfectly reproduced fake Christmas tree. The tree can be a reminder of the Blessed Exchange, but I do think it gets missed. Instead we turn the special into a lesson about being compassionate toward one another. Not a bad thing at all. A most certain improvement over the way we are most likely to treat one another without any assistance. But how great that the compassion we show to others is firmly rooted in the compassion the Father shows us in Jesus.
We don't need to be self-righteous, as people on both sides of the "Christmas wars" are. But we can be present in the celebrations for others keeping our eyes out for a moment to share the good news present in this holiday, and at the same time looking for God's compassion to transform us, remembering that Christ has given us the gift of his very self.