In the 1965 animated Peanuts special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Charlie Brown becomes a kind of prophet — a Peanuts preacher — when he asks a very honest question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
The backstory to Charlie’s question, for those who haven’t seen the show, is that Charlie is complaining about the overwhelming materialism that he sees everywhere during the Christmas season. Lucy suggests that he become director of the school Christmas pageant and Charlie Brown accepts, but it proves frustrating. At the worst point, Charlie attempts to restore the proper spirit of Christmas with a little, pitiful-looking, fir Christmas tree. The others make fun of him, and that’s when he becomes so irritated, frustrated, and exacerbated that he blurts out his profound question about the meaning of Christmas.
The plot twist is that it is the thumb-sucking Linus who approaches Charlie to tell him what Christmas is all about. Linus walks to the center of the stage, calls for the lights to dim, and the spotlight is shown on him as the light of truth comes out of his mouth as he begins telling the Christmas story by quoting verses from the Gospel of Luke.
At first glance, we may just think that Linus did a fine job in reciting the sacred text. But as he speaks, something happens. Linus, who could not be separated from his security blanket, drops the blanket as he recites these verses. And what’s interesting is that he drops it when he says these words from the story: “Fear not.”
From Linus we learn that Christmas is not about governmental regulations and control. It’s not about partisan politics and policies. Christmas isn’t about our daily work, no matter how good we are at it, no matter how successful we become. More than any of these things, Christmas is about freedom from fear.
This message is so important because there are so many phobias that I’m afraid I can’t name them all. The fear of death and illness and pain and despair. The fear of being unloved and rejected, unknown or embarrassed. The fear of poverty or hunger or aging. The fear of loss or failure. The fear of heights or the Duke Chapel tower elevator. Fear of the dark and horror flicks. Fear of spiders or crowds. Or even that particular fear writer Mary Ruefle names — the fear “of eating an anchovy.” We live in a culture of fear and fear can be like a voice pounding non-stop in our ears.
Poet Emily Dickinson, who lived a lot of her life in isolation, was believed to suffer from severe anxiety and fear. She penned such words as, “I lived on dread” and one of the most haunting lines I’ve ever heard, “I felt a funeral, in my brain.” Fear can be so prevalent that we become like the characters in the book, What Jamie Saw, who are so sick with fear settled inside of them that they don’t even know “what living feels like without it.” And this is the trick of fear—that you forget that it is fear, so it just feels like it’s your life. But fear, F.E.A.R., as an acronym, can mean “false evidence appearing real.”
Fear is even in the Christmas story. Angels appear to shepherds in the fields, and those shepherds are terrified. But then an angel tells the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Do not be afraid. Fear not. God came into the world in the form of a fragile, innocent, vulnerable baby Jesus, not in a frightening, threatening, or violent way. Jesus is only armed with love and that itself is disarming and freeing.
It is a timeless message from Bethlehem all the way to Burlington, NC: Christmas is about freedom from fear. As singer Nina Simone said, “I tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.”
So whether you celebrate Christmas or not, consider the example of Charlie Brown’s wise friend Linus: We can let go of the security blankets that we have been gripping so tightly, releasing our fears in order to finally be free.
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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