St. John’s Convent, December 4, 2016
Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
Isaiah 11.1-10 Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19
Romans 15.4-13 Matthew 3.1-12
CHARLIE THE BAPTIST
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Isaiah 40.3; Matthew 3.3)
In the classic TV animated film first shown in 1965, Charlie is a typical post-modern guy going through an existential crisis as he is growing up. He feels bad about himself: a failure, unloved, ridiculed, alienated from his culture but seeking meaning in his life, desperate to be accepted, longing for unconditional love which he has found not in his peers, not yet in God, but in his beloved and faithful dog. (Don’t forget though that dog is God spelled backward!)
In 2016 Charlie is just as relevant as he was 50 years ago. It seems as if a lot has changed in western society – and it has – but one thing that has not changed is peoples’ longing for God, for acceptance, for belonging, for love.
When the story opens, Charlie is feeling depressed. He hates the commercialization of Christmas but doesn’t understand why because he doesn’t really understand Christmas. He goes to Lucy for psychiatric help and the advice she gives him is to direct a Christmas play – she is sure that will give him the “Christmas spirit” (whatever that is) and will get him out of his doldrums.
But Charlie doesn’t have an easy job keeping a bunch of rude and unruly children focussed on a Christmas play. He probably feels like John the Baptist and would like to yell “you brood of vipers!” except that he doesn’t have the courage to do so. His friends just erode his lack of self-confidence more and he gets more despondent. He decides the one thing that might make the whole play hang together is a Christmas tree. Lucy wants him to get a nice shiny aluminum tree, but he is determined to find a real one – and ends up with the last one on the lot – a straggling, struggling little rut of a tree – rather a projection of Charlie’s view of himself.
When he gets the tree back to the auditorium where they’re rehearsing the play, all the kids mock him and make fun of the tree before leaving Charlie alone with the tree and Linus. Charlie cries the existentialist cry: “Does anyone know what Christmas is really about?” Or he might say, “is there any meaning to life?” Linus replies by reciting the narrative from Luke about the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.
Charlie regains enough composure to take the tree home to decorate, thinking that will help. The single ornament he puts on it makes the tree lopsided, even more ridiculous looking and he thinks he has killed the tree. But with Linus taking the lead, the other kids show up and take the decorations from Snoopy’s doghouse (presumably with Snoopy’s permission) and decorate the tree. The story ends joyfully with everyone singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and it reminds me of today’s passage from Romans:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15.5)
The little community of “Peanuts” has come together against all odds, overcome their differences, and harmoniously giving glory to Jesus. Charlie, in his vulnerability, has led them to that place of reconciliation and rejoicing.
Charlie, it seems to me, is a lot like John the Baptist, the “voice crying in the wilderness” which is the theme of the second Sunday of Advent. He is the one among the children who has a passionate longing for the coming of the Messiah, though he would not use that word. He knows there is something more that the values of the society he’s living in.
The same was true for John. He came proclaiming repentance in preparation for the coming of Jesus, “the one who is greater than I”. While Charlie wasn’t asking people to repent in the same way, his mission was certainly to prepare the way for Jesus, to open his own eyes to the truth of what Christmas is about and to get others to see. His seeking Lucy’s help, his agreeing to direct the play, his looking for a real tree instead of an aluminum one, were ways of preparing the way – both for himself, to get himself out of his depression, and for his friends, family, and schoolmates.
And that tree! – Isaiah tells us that the coming Messiah is the branch of Jesse – another way of saying the descendent of David. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” says Isaiah, “and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him . . . “ Charlie the Baptist’s tree reminds me of that branch of Jesse – just a small branch, a sapling really, like the tiny human born in a stable. Charlie’s tree reminds us of what great beauty can grow from something unremarkable – even “despised, forsaken, rejected” as Isaiah describes the Messiah in another place.
And on that small branch of Jesse, we read, will rest the Spirit of the Lord – the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his coming will bring healing for people and renewal for creation: the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion – all will lie down together in the peaceable kingdom – “and a little child shall lead them.”
The little child in Isaiah reflects Jesus, the sapling, the little shoot from the root of Jesse. But it also reminds us of Charlie the Baptist or John the Baptist. John was, after all, only a few months older than his cousin Jesus. The vision of the Messiah was passed o to him from his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah. And so the grown-up John started as a sapling himself, a shoot form the roots of Elizabeth and Zechariah – one child preparing the way for another.
And what of us? Each of us is called to be a baptist, a forerunner – perhaps not literally baptizing people but certainly preparing the way for them to become followers of Jesus.
And how do we do that? I think the experience of Charlie and his friends can teach us a lot. We stick together. We help each other. We try our best to live in peace together just like the lion and the lamb. And after all is said and done, even when we give each other a hard time, even in conflict and hurt and misunderstanding, we help each other through the rough times, decorating a tree for someone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt when they are at the end of their rope as Charlie was, and allowing the beauty of the sapling to grow out of an unlikely beginning.
“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” Isaiah goes on to say. “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”
May each of us be open to be used by the Spirit to bring the knowledge of the Lord to those who are desperate to know about God and the Son and the Spirit. May each of us nurture the Jesse tree we have been given. And may we stand tall and straight, like beautiful trees ourselves, so that we may be signs of the coming Reign of God.