Can turning on the TV turn into a holy activity? Can watching the exploits of Charlie Brown and Rudolph help adults and children alike to “Prepare the Way of the Lord”? Absolutely, in some pretty surprising ways.
I have never outgrown my childhood addiction to Christmas specials, even the ones that turn up year after year, time and time again. Some Christians decry the popularity of such “secular” stories, claiming they distract from the primary faith story of Christmas. I even worried, a bit, about my own fairly serious attachment to the Grinch until one day, many years ago, I read a marvelous article by Catholic theologian John Shea which put my worries to rest for good. Shea points out that the response of every culture throughout the ages to the wondrous story of Christ’s birth has been to tell other stories that break open its meaning. Our best secular tales are not meant to compete but to complement – to make alive for us in ever-new ways all the unfathomed lessons embedded within Christmas.
Consider the Grinch, suggests Shea. Advent is about conversion — the change of heart — which occurs when at last we open our eyes wide enough to recognize God in our midst. When the sound of Whoville singing reaches his ears and the Grinch realizes that Christmas has come despite all of his efforts to steal it away, his eyes open large, his shriveled heart grows ten sizes, and real conversion happens. His choices, and his understanding of the world, will never be the same again.
Consider further, says Shea, the real message being proclaimed when the Peanuts gang finally embrace the efforts of the outcast, Charlie Brown, and gather around an unloved and unwanted tree to proclaim the Christmas message. Or when Rudolph, the Rejected Reindeer, becomes a light in the darkness — the one who shows the way as nobody else can.
These are the profound truths of our Christmas faith: A child born in a stable is acclaimed Savior of the world. That which is weak, vulnerable, and rejected in ourselves — and in our world — has the power to improve our vision, deepen our compassion, enlarge our hearts and save us, if we let it. While it certainly won’t be my only Advent activity, I plan to sit down with my family in front of the TV quite a few times in the weeks ahead and Prepare the Way of the Lord by listening and watching well.
(Note: A more recent book by John Shea, titled Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long, was revised this past year.)