One of my favorite parts of celebrating Christmas is watching the Christmas specials on TV with the family (and if we are unavailable for the network broadcasts, we have most, if not all, the best on DVD). I am sure everyone has a list of their preferences: “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Prep and Landing”, or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. They are all wonderful in their own right, but my personal choice for the greatest Christmas special would be a tie between “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. These marvelous stories, regularly broadcast since 1965 and 1966 respectively, hold a special place in my heart.
At first blush, these two stories have very little in common. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tells the story of a boy seeking the real meaning of Christmas while preparing for a traditional Christmas pageant which emphasizes, in a pivotal scene, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” recounts the happenings of a fantastic location known as Whoville and the mean resident of Mount Crumpet who is seeking to rob the Whos of their Christmas joy. One has overtly Christian themes and the other has overly secular themes, seemingly the two opposites of the celebratory spectrum.
But these two masterpieces have more in common than you might think. Both the authors grew up in Lutheran homes. Both were based on works intended for children. Most significantly, both, at their cores, deal with the dangers of consumerism. “Charlie Brown”’s animated landscape is riddled with aluminum Christmas trees and its dialogue is filled with gift suggestions, leaving the protagonist with the zigzag shirt longing for more. “The Grinch”’s narrative couplets tell of jingtinglers and games like zoozittacarzay, and decry the noises of the season, all of which cause consternation within the titular green meanie. Both Charlie Brown and the Grinch want to stop the celebration of a consumption-centered Christmas.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11 (NIV)
If you have not watched these specials at least once in the last 50 years, stop reading and watch them on Youtube© here and here. Both these Christmas specials come to the conclusion that the meaning and significance of Christmas is not the stuff under the tree, but the relationships we cherish while gathering around the tree. It is the relationships – for “Charlie Brown” it is Jesus and for “The Grinch” it is family – that makes Christmas matter. These relationships bring the school children around a tiny tree to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and bring the Whos around the spot where the village tree was placed to sing “Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze, Welcome, Christmas, Come This Way.”
My prayer this Christmas is that we can all come to the same realization that the Grinch reaches: that Christmas can come without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes or bags. My hope this Christmas is that when we reach our breaking point and cry out, as Charlie did, whether anyone knows what Christmas is all about, some kind soul reminds you about the marvelous events that took place just outside Bethlehem. It is not about presents…it is all about presence.
As I stood in line at the bank the other day, anachronistically waiting for a genuine human being to process my deposit, I longed for simpler times. I long for the days when there were more than one teller and a bowl of lollipops in the bank lobby instead of a customer service representative encouraging the use of the ATM. I long for the days when the supermarket had a full bank of staffed registers instead of one live cashier-bagger and six self-service aisles. I long for the days of phone calls with actual people on the other line instead of a stream of texts and snap-chats. As technology advances, it seems that social interaction recedes.
Thankfully, there are a number of places where personal relationships are accentuated and face-to-face conversations are encouraged. Primary among those places, in my opinion, is the local church. While many of the functions of the church can be accomplished without human interaction – web-based Bible studies, live-streaming worship services and christianmingle.com – the greatest benefits of the church occur when we gather together. The Bible is full of activities that we can do together: greet one another, instruct one another, serve one another, encourage one another and love one another. We do these things – and more – through spending time in the presence of one another.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25
The blessing of meeting together, in prayer and in praise and in proclamation, is multi-faceted. There is the blessing of diverse interactions: few places outside of local houses of worship have such a variety of people with differing ages, experiences, educations, relationships and resources. There is the blessing of nuance: we have yet to be able to capture sarcasm, subtlety or body language through electronic media and we know that communication involves more than words. There is the blessing of presence; one of the initial comments of God was the fact that it is not good for humans to be alone, and yet we are fast becoming a society where we need no longer interact with others to exist.
God is relational – He is, by nature, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and He created us in His image (i.e. relational). As we bravely advance in this world of kiosks and tablets, we must challenge the societal momentum toward an impersonal existence. We must interact with our words as well as our pixels, with our presence as well as our avatars and with a handshake or hug as well as a hashtag. Some of us need to push back against the tide of isolation and take the time to have a conversation with a few other fascinating human beings.
A good first step is to enter a local service of worship this weekend, sing shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger and surround all your senses with the Savior of your soul. Perhaps it will give you something to think about while waiting in line at the bank.