Thus begins one of the best known scenes in television history: the moment from A Charlie Brown Christmas in which Linus explains the meaning of Christmas to a distraught Charlie Brown. Linus steps to the middle of the stage; the spotlight is on him as he recites from memory the story of the shepherds from Luke 2:8-14. “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,” Linus concludes. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
In an old interview shown last week in honor of the animated special’s 50th anniversary, Charles Schulz reminisced over how anxious the producers were over the inclusion of such a scene: What, you mean actually quote the Bible? Can we really get away with that? Indeed, the scene is the turning point of the story. The children have been mercilessly mocking Charlie Brown for his incompetence. But they are silent as Linus speaks, and everyone is quietly transformed by the words.
“Peace on earth,” our Christmas cards read. But what do peace and good will really mean? From biblical times to the present, the world has always been torn by violence. Is there any doubt? Even this past week, there was a mass shooting in our own community.
We know hopeful stories of people laying down arms, if not directly for the love of Jesus, then at least out of respect for the day. Such folklore is even part of the Peanuts universe. When I was a kid, the song Snoopy’s Christmas was a seasonal hit. In it, the evil Red Baron has our favorite flying ace in his sights but doesn’t shoot, because the Christmas bells ringing in the village below call him to peace and good will. The Baron thus wishes Snoopy “Merry Christmas” instead. They part ways, “knowing they’d meet on some other day.”
Presumably that means they respectfully agreed to wait until after Christmas to go back to trying to kill each other.
Violence comes in all forms, including the cruelty of children to the Charlie Browns of the world. Neither this, nor racial oppression, nor war, nor terrorism, nor any of a thousand other forms of violence are God’s will for the world or humanity.
But peace is more than the absence of violence: it’s the presence of wholeness. The praise offered by the angels is not that God will immediately put an end to all violence. The good news, rather, is that God is inaugurating peace and wholeness through the most unexpected of means: a baby, wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger.
Christmas raises a question of vision. In our media-saturated age, violence hogs the airwaves. But in the birth of Jesus, the work of restoring peace to a broken creation has already begun. This is, after all, the baby who grew up to teach that loving one’s enemies was an embodiment of the kingdom of heaven.
In last week’s Advent meditation, I suggested that consumer culture narrows our vision in ways that make it difficult or even impossible to appreciate the newness of what God has done in the miracle announced to the shepherds long ago.
The same might be said of the ubiquitous news reports of violence. We have a choice. We can see the world as one in which violence will have the last word and peace is at best a temporary truce. Or we can believe that peace is the work of God, already present in the world, bearing the kind of fruit that doesn’t tend to make the 6 o’clock news.
And we can choose to be part of it. Inevitably, at Christmas, we will think about friends and loved ones. But what would it mean to remember what God has done in Christ, and to embody peace by expressing good will toward our enemies instead?
Maybe you could pick just one. What would God have you do?