As I sit here in the glow of my Christmas tree, soaking up the scent of my holiday candle, I see the packages under the tree that my parents sent from Kansas. There are a couple of open boxes in the corner that haven’t been mailed. An unfinished Christmas project has overtaken the coffee table, which also holds a box of cards that won’t get sent. I’m so bad at Christmas.
Ya know, I’m just not really what you would call a “Christmas person.” I know, I know. How can I love Jesus, be in church work, and NOT be excited about His birth?! Well, perhaps the Grinch and myself have something in common, but I think it has more to do with the crazy of the season and my tendency for ridiculous expectations.
I love giving thoughtful gifts. I secretly dream of getting THE PERFECT THING that each person on my list has always secretly hoped and dreamed to receive. If I fall short, I’m disappointed. I get bummed when I don’t hear from loved ones I’m thinking of during this season. It’s hard to spend the days leading up to Christmas, knowing that the Schwalm girls are filling the kitchen with goodies and sneaking gifts under the tree. I sit and wonder who will wrap my Dad’s gifts for him and why I didn’t take time to adopt a Christmas angel this year. I didn’t get to go to the Holidazzle parade or make it back for my alma mater’s Christmas concert. I miss snow and I can’t make desserts like my mom. My apartment is empty and my work load is full. And I can’t help but think to myself: “This isn’t how I thought it would be.”
I heard someone say once, “This craziness of Christmas is ridiculous! Do you think the first Christmas was like that?! No!” I can’t argue about the over-the-top nature the holiday has taken, but I’m pretty sure Christmas has always been crazy.
God blessed me with new eyes for Jesus’ mother, Mary, this Advent—a glimpse into her story. Picture her. Sweet teenage Mary. Engaged to a lovely man. Dreaming of the festivities they would have with the whole village to celebrate their nuptials. Enter Gabriel the game changer. Mary takes her assignment of birthing the Messiah with obedience, grace, and faith and in a flash, the holy baby bump is the talk of the village. Hurtful words and whispers abound, dreams of a joyous and honorable wedding are dashed, and her man is having doubts. Thankfully Elizabeth gave her some encouragement and Joseph jumps aboard after a little visit from the Lord while he was sleeping. The wedding is still on, but not the large, honorable festivities, I’m sure. She would never have a wedding like the one where her Son turned water into wine. They would always be under scandal. People are wondering about Joseph, too. Just like that, this couples’ obedience to God has earned them scarlet letters. And I have to wonder if at the thought of her crushed bridal dreams, she said, “This isn't how I thought it would be.”
But moving on, there’s a baby on the way. Of course, they didn’t have a baby registry or a nursery to decorate, but there were still plans to be made. I’m sure Mary had spoken with Nazareth’s midwife. I'm sure those were interesting conversations. I'm thinking she had delivered enough babies to question the whole virgin birth thing. There are certain to have been conversations with Mary’s mom about what to expect and tricks to handle the pain. They probably prepared a place for the birth and a few items for the baby soon to come. After all, it could be any day now. But wait, word arrives to Nazareth that there is a census being enforced by the Roman occupation. All must register. No exceptions. (Note God's creative use of political oppression here as a tool to get Mary and Joseph 80 miles down the road to Bethlehem so the prophecy would be fulfilled. Well played.) I can only imagine the tears rolling down Mary’s face as Joseph broke the news. “I’m sorry, Mary, but we have to go to Bethlehem right away. It’s a long journey, but we have no choice.” She rushes to gather a few things together—a few loaves of bread, a wine skin, and some strips of cloth for swaddling for the baby’s arrival—while her mother repeats delivery instructions over and over again to the young, first time parents. Mary wouldn’t have her midwife there, or her mama, or anyone who had been a parent before. And as they left Nazareth all their plans for the birth of their child fading behind them, I’m sure Mary had to have thought at least once, “This isn’t how I thought it would be.”
Yes, I know she was obedient in this calling, but she was still human. And any human riding nine months pregnant on a donkey for four days is sure to have some unholy thoughts. As they come into this humble village of Bethlehem, the place is packed. So packed that they can’t even get a room to sleep in. The kind innkeeper offers a livestock cave out back so they can at least get out of the wind. And Mary goes into labor. In a place with sheep dung all over the ground, reeking of animals, chilly, and rocky. I could image her desperation in that moment. “Okay…I didn’t get the wedding, my first child is shamed, not celebrated by my village, the Romans force us to come to Bethlehem with a baby bouncing on a donkey ride, and I’ve been a good sport. But…this?!?! This. Is. Ridiculous!” She has nothing to welcome her little one with, except for a few strips of cloth she brought and a new dad to help with the delivery. This was so not how she thought it would be.
Jesus is born and Mary is exhausted. She needs to rest, but can’t put Jesus down on the sheep poop floor. I have to believe Joseph improvised with the whole manger idea and was so proud of his problem-solving dad moment. He knew it wasn’t what she’d imagined, but the best they could do.
But wait. There’s more. God is so excited about the arrival of His Son to earth that He has to tell someone! Why not some shepherds? They’re close and still awake…bring ‘em over! And poor post-labor Mary welcomes a bunch of filthy shepherds to the cave, probably accompanied by some sheep, to see the Christ lying in a feeding trough. It really had to be nothing like she’d expected. But that was the moment that it all hit her.
It was as if she relived all the moments that led up to that point, starting from Gabriel’s visit. The pregnancy scandal, the talking neighbors, the almost divorce, the census, the journey, the donkey..oh, the donkey, the crowded inn, the sheep cave, the broken birth plans, and shepherds being the first to visit the newborn. But she smiled and pondered all of these moments in her heart because through all of that, a stringing together of one crazy event after another, the Messiah was born just as she’d been told.
It didn’t get easier from there. They had to flee to Egypt for awhile. Their families wouldn’t have met Jesus until they returned to Nazareth when he was a young child. Perhaps she’d thrown her expectations out the window by then.
So I stop and look around at my Christmas crazy. My packages and projects. Or just my regular crazy. My unattained goals and unreached landmarks. Are my expectations getting in the way? Am I willing to give up my dreams and expectations for what God might have in mind? Do I trust that when difficult arises that God’s provision and protection is bigger than my fear and discomfort? Am I taking time to ponder in my heart what God has done this year to bring me to this point? Am I missing the Savior for being focused on the manger?
There have been SO many times in my life that I’ve uttered those words, “this is not what I thought it would be.” But one thing remains true every Christmas since the first, and it’s true for this one. Jesus is here. God has kept His promise and in a way no one expected. Christmas has always been crazy. This year is no exception. Take a cue from Mary. Roll with it. Do some pondering. And join in worshiping with the shepherds.
Sometimes I wonder if she really knew what it all meant. I mean, she knew Jesus was the Messiah, but what did that mean to her? Did she expect Him to reign as King of Israel? Lead a mighty military? Overthrow the Roman oppressors? Did she really expect him to…be a carpenter like His dad? Well, both of His dad’s did like to make things…so I guess it works. Did she expect him to have a posse and travel around speaking and healing? I don’t know.
There was a moment where Mary stood next to John, the one Jesus loved, and looked up at her first born. A baby once wrapped in cloths was now a beaten, bloody mess hanging with His hands and feet nailed to a cross. As His mother stood there in John’s arms, overcome by sadness, I believe she was grieving dreams of who she thought Jesus would be both as her son and her Messiah. Perhaps saying for a final time, “This…this is not how I thought it would be.”
But on that Good Friday at the cross and that night in Bethlehem, heaven replied, “For you, for the world, for hope, life, and salvation, this is how it had to be in to accomplish what’s meant to be.”
You having life for hear and eternity is what’s meant to be. Jesus brought that for you.