Changing Expectations of Christmas
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." ~Matthew 24:35
This past weekend, as I was driving with my mom, we got to talking about how different Christmas feels this year. Her rural Minnesota town only put up a small part of their usual Christmas decorations and are not playing Christmas music over the speakers on Main Street this year. Almost everyone we know didn’t decorate their homes as elaborately this year because holiday parties aren’t happening, extended family isn’t coming home, and too many friends are sick or have been lost in recent months. Churches aren’t having big Christmas Eve services or they are dramatically different if they are. It even seems nature has lost some of it’s Christmas spirit this year with its stubborn refusal to snow in these parts. Christmas just feels different this year.
I can’t help but think back to this spring when Easter felt so different. At that time I, along with many others, held onto the hope and belief that, because we sacrificed our family gatherings this spring and into the summer, we would be back in school this fall and be able to safely gather for Christmas. It’s disappointing, to say the very least, to now be giving up more holiday plans. Christmas doesn’t look the way very many of us hoped and planned for months ago this year. In so many ways, it isn’t what we expected.
But then again, neither was the first Christmas.
For those watching and waiting for the Messiah to come, they didn’t expect a baby born to an ordinary, average, teenaged girl who, with her fiancé, had so few political connections that they couldn’t secure a room in home or Inn despite having to travel so close to her due date. No, they expected a new king born to a high-ranking family. They expected fanfare and grand announcements. They expected a statement to be made to the Roman government at the time of God’s intention to reduce them to ruin and rubble. They expected that they, as the religious leadership of the Jewish faith, would know him and embrace him, championing his message among God’s people. They expected the Messiah to fit into their expectations. But Jesus never really does.
Mary expected her first pregnancy to be different. She expected it would be after she was married and to be the biological child of her betrothed. She expected to have a wedding her friends and family all celebrated with her. She expected that, when the time came, she would be surrounded by the women in her family as she had likely seen happen with siblings, cousins, and neighbors throughout her childhood. She didn’t expect to be pregnant because an angel visited her and told her she was going to give birth to the Son of God. She didn’t expect to find herself traveling because of a governmental decree in her last days of pregnancy. Mary expected a lot of things to be different about that first Christmas.
Joseph likely imagined that first Christmas going differently as well. Even after coming to terms with the reality of Mary’s pregnancy, I’m sure he wasn’t excited about taking his very pregnant young bride on a journey to Bethlehem. I can’t imagine the frustration he must have felt as Mary’s contractions grew stronger and he was unable to find them a place to stay. Nor can I imagine the responsibility he must have felt to provide for and raise such a special first-born son.
The shepherds with their flocks that night expected nothing special to happen. In fact, if you were to ask them, they likely hoped nothing significant happened during the night because significant events were most likely emergencies such as robbers stealing their sheep, wild animals attempting to eat their sheep, or a sheep getting sick and needing tending to throughout the night. While the farm I grew up on didn’t have sheep, we always hoped for a quiet night when it came to the animals because a quiet night was a good night. A quiet night meant there were no emergencies to deal with. However, instead of a quiet night they got one with a sky filled with angels praising God and telling of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.
This Christmas isn’t what most of us expected. It isn’t what most of us would have chosen as the best plan. But perhaps that reality is what makes it more like that first Christmas so long ago than we have ever experienced before. Maybe it will help us empathize more deeply with Mary who wasn’t able to have her mother, aunts, cousins, and even siblings with her as she gave birth to her first child. Maybe it will help us appreciate how frustrated Joseph must have been to find so much falling on his shoulders and not being able to provide for his family in the way he would have liked to. Maybe it will help us realize, as the shepherds did that night, that work isn’t always the most important thing to take care of.
I’ll close with this thought. If Jesus had been born at the Inn, or in a private home, access to him would have been restricted by some human person. And it is very likely the Shepherds would not have been allowed in. Why? Because they would have smelled. If you have spent even a day working with animals, you know the smell lingers on you and your clothing. The greater the number of animals, the greater the strength of the lingering odor. But because he was born in stable, anyone who cared to pay attention could see the infant Messiah. The shepherds and the wise men were welcomed into his presence. Maybe this year, with all of the changes and adaptations we are being forced to make when it comes to celebrating Christmas, will also open doors and welcome people into the presence of Christ who we would have unwittingly turned away with our human traditions.
May the Peace of Christ be with you in a very way this year. And may we all be here to celebrate Christmas with a new and deeper appreciation for what is truly important next year.