A couple of nights ago, PBS showed the classic Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. I cried. Because I always do. Every year since 1965.
I wanted to share this small vignette from Freeing Jesus — my next book — with you. It recalls the first time I saw the cartoon, and how it opened my six-year old theological imagination.
I’ve always wondered how many people first heard the Christmas story this way. And I’m willing to bet that Linus’s homily might well be the most famous Christmas sermon ever.
A neon sign hung outside a storefront church at the edge of our neighborhood. Two words formed a glowing red cross: JESUS SAVES.
“Savior” may well be the most ubiquitous term that Christians use to describe Jesus. This is especially true in Western Christianity, and Protestant churches in particular, where the emphasis on Jesus as the One who saves us from sin and death is a primary focus of both preaching and piety. Whether one prays before a crucifix, recites vows of baptism and Confirmation, goes forward for an altar call, or falls to the floor with ecstatic utterance, “Jesus saves” is understood as the central and continued meaning of his work for both individual Christians and the life of the world.
Yet, oddly enough, “Savior” appears only twice in the gospels to describe Jesus. One is at the beginning of the gospel of Luke, and the other is in John 4:42, where neighbors of a Samaritan woman proclaim, “Indeed, this is the Savior of the world.” Other titles, like “teacher” and “rabbi,” appear far more frequently. Additional theological titles, like “Christ” (“anointed one”) and “Lord,” are also more prevalent in the gospels. If, however, you ask random Christians who Jesus is, I am willing to bet the answer “Jesus is my Savior” would be high on the list, and perhaps the top reply.
Although the neon cross grabbed my attention, “Savior” was not a term I typically heard as a child.
My first recollection of hearing Jesus called “Savior” comes from a much more mundane source—A Charlie Brown Christmas, the classic holiday cartoon, first aired on television in 1965. I was six, my little brother four, and my sister a toddler. We gathered around the new color television, turned to CBS, and watched. Poor Charlie Brown! No one remembered the true meaning of Christmas. He was so depressed! At the climax of the show, he cried out in frustration, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus stepped on stage and recited verses from Luke 2: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not . . . for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”
I looked over to the manger scene, newly purchased from Sears, that was set up in the living room. Mary, in her blue cloak, was on her knees leaning reverently toward her infant son, who was lying in a cradle of straw. Baby Jesus the Savior? My family did not talk this way, quoting scripture like that. People at my church would have shied away from expressing such religious sentiment in prime time—these words belonged in a pulpit or Sunday school classroom. I had no idea what I needed to be saved from and no clue what it meant, but it was a mysterious-sounding word, mesmerizing even. I liked it—“Savior”—and somehow I intuited what Linus was saying. This was the true meaning of Christmas. Born this day, a Savior. Born to Mary, born into each heart.
To understand at six and to understand when you are older are, of course, two different things, but learning a single word is often an invitation into a deeper faith, to go on a journey with an insight, an idea. At six, “Savior” invited me to wonder, to love Christmas. Eventually, “Savior” would prove the door into a much more encompassing faith, a way of belief that would, for a time at least, answer my questions.
(This material is copyrighted, c. 2020 Diana Butler Bass; forthcoming Freeing Jesus from HarperOne)
Christmas is best pondered, not with logic, but with imagination.
Luke affirms that Jesus, not Caesar, is the good news, the true savior and Son of God who brings peace. The theme of two lordships is powerful and central to the biblical tradition as a whole. Explicitly, the birth stories affirm that Jesus is the true lord. Implicitly, they leave us with a question: where are you going to see your lord? In the power and wealth of Herod and Caesar, of kingship and empire? Or in this Galilean Jewish peasant who saw things very differently? Where are you going to see the decisive manifestation of God?
I’m suspending expectations, fortifying my heart in the quiet moments, drawing close to the very old story of a young couple, a baby on the way, an unexpected journey—an unexpected life, really, for Mary & Joseph. I’m drawing close to the heart of Advent—the waiting, the darkness, the holding on for hope that we believe but that we cannot yet see. Here’s to opening our weary hearts to the unexpected, the strange & lovely, the disruptive & beautiful all around us.
— Shauna Niequist
FREEING JESUS releases March 30, 2021.
Click here for more information and to pre-order from your favorite booksellers.