There are some stories that move us whether we hear them at five or fifty-five. The 1965 release of the first Peanuts movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was instantly loved by adults and children alike. But it almost did not make it past the television executives who hated it. The movie was criticized for everything from being too contemporary in music, to being too religious in tone. But audiences everywhere confidently disagreed. Having aired every year since its debut in 1965, it is now the longest-running cartoon special in history.
One of my predictably favorite scenes finds Charlie Brown on a hunt for the perfect “great big, shiny, aluminum tree—maybe even a pink one” as instructed by Lucy for their Christmas pageant. At the tree lot, Charlie Brown walks through row after row of flashing, shiny spectacles of color, trying his best to choose well and please his friends. But then he sees a small, natural tree, nearly overshadowed by the flash and glitter of the rest. It is pitiful and loosing needles, but it is the only real tree on the lot. In a moment of confidence, Charlie Brown chooses the unlikely sapling over all the others (and is thus the target of laughter and mockery by all).
Even as children, we seem to know intuitively that there is something remarkable—perhaps something even sacred—about being selected long before we understand the implications of choice at all. That someone saw anything worth choosing in this sickly little tree is a turn in the plot that quiets us. Charlie Brown claims the unlikely, pathetic tree as his own, and there is a part of us that feels claimed too.
The Christian story of God among the world is filled with the language of claiming and calling, gathering and choosing. Yet, stripped of the story and its characters, these words often offend us. We speak of the injustice of a God who claims anyone, who shows signs of favoritism, or calls anyone particularly. We forget what we felt deeply as children—namely, that being claimed among a group of the prettiest and the smartest and the fastest is not about deserving it at all.
In a country of wealth and grandeur, the people of Israel were slaves who were exploited and abused. They were overshadowed, inconsequential, and cast aside, not unlike the tiny tree in the vast lot of color. But God came near and claimed an unlikely people, picking them up, giving them a name, collecting them like a hen gathers her chicks. The book of Deuteronomy recounts the fledging relationship: “For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye” (32:9-10).
God’s gathering of the Israelites was not based on prerequisites. Yet it was far from passive and unfeeling, emerging from God’s love, mercy, and wisdom. The prophets would later describe it as the selection of a bride for a bridegroom, and Jesus would later describe himself as the bridegroom who came even closer to beckon that bride to his side. God’s own are referred to as the “apple of his eye,” an expression reserved for those who are most endeared to us. The original Hebrew for the expression can be literally translated as “little person of the eye.” The idiom is surprisingly close to the Latin “pupilla,” from which we get the word pupil. The word means “little doll,” and was applied to the dark center of the eye because of the tiny image of oneself that appears when looking into someone’s eyes. In these words, it is if God expresses, “If you get close enough, you will see that it is you who is held in my eyes.” God’s claiming, in other words, is inherently personal; and the story of the Incarnation is further a claim that God would gather every chick, every creature, every soul as a hen would gather her young.
What we often forget is that our own choices are inherently the same. A spirituality based on preference fails to consider the one it rejects, which is particularly ironic when it rejects due to a distaste of exclusivity. If God comes near enough to choose a forgotten nation, to gather the unlikely, to love them out of no merit of their own, and to give them his name regardless, can we not consider this God behind all of the things we have to say about religion and exclusivity? If God comes even nearer, sending a vulnerable son to reach a dejected people, to cleanse them and claim them out of no doing of their own, and to give them his grace regardless, will we not consider the one we reject when we accuse him of injustice, tyranny, or favoritism? For meanwhile, and regardless, the incarnate God of the Christian story continues to give the weak, the unwise, and the forgotten a new place and name: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.