There are some Christmas traditions that just won’t die – like Bicycles, BB guns, and Stockings. We know what we want. My mother always wanted a Christmas with everyone home, everyone happy, and no one arguing. The Norman Rockwell painting of a family gathered around the tree in absolute joy. My father always wanted scratch off tickets that would win him enough to pay for the next ten years of Christmas gifts. That and a Christmas ham. But neither was to happen. Somehow my sister, brother, and I would always find something to argue about. Someone (probably an uncle or an aunt) would call to let us know that they wouldn’t be coming for the family Christmas because they just couldn’t stand to be in the same room with so and so who had said something inappropriate last year after one to many. Poor dad would have to suffer through getting another handkerchief or a pair of socks. But he’d be happy because there would be ham.
Christmas is rarely what we want it to be. We want it to be quiet and quaint, just our close friends and family; and yet it always seems to grow out of control like some frat party at college. We want it to be peaceful like snowflakes falling from the sky, instead of the hectic pace of conflicting schedules, long lines, and exhausted feet. And yes, we want snow. And just on Christmas day, so no one has to drive in it or get stuck sleeping on the couch at our house. We want it to be like some Christmas we’re sure happened once upon a time and yet hasn’t seemed to ever be.
Christmas is rarely what we want it to be. But don’t worry. Calm down. The first Christmas was that way, too. Joseph and Mary were like any other couple in love. They looked at one another with that wellspring of hope in their hearts. They had plans for the future. He’d continue expanding his small business of carpentry. She’d probably picked out pots and fabrics for the home. Their families were excited and expecting great things. The wedding would be wonderful – two honorable families coming together in the union of this woman and this man. And of course there were whispers about the little ones that would soon be additions to their families heritage, tradition, and honor.
But this was not to be.
Christmas was not what Joseph and Mary wanted it to be. It came too soon. Things were different in the ancient world. Unlike today, a woman was only worth her womb. She was worthy as a virgin before marriage. She was worthy as a producer of children in marriage. She was called to add honor to her husband.
I’m thankful that we’ve moved beyond this, but that was the situation for Mary. Carrying the Son of God meant that she would lose worth in her families eyes. Carrying Jesus meant that her virtue was now called into question. Carrying Emmanuel meant that the world looked at her with disdain.
Christmas was not what Joseph and Mary wanted it to be. It came too soon. Things were different in the ancient world. You couldn’t just throw the ring on the ground and walk away from an engagement. To break off the engagement meant that Joseph was breaking a covenant, a promise, and a contract. Not only would people whisper about Mary, they would ask what was wrong with Joseph. As the offended party, Joseph was supposed to make a big deal of this, he had the right to publicly humiliate Mary and her family. In fact that was what the law called for him to do.
Matthew describes Joseph and a “righteous” or “just” or “fair” man. He doesn’t want to ruin Mary and her family. He doesn’t want this to be a public affair. He wants this all to be over quickly and quietly.
Christmas was not what Joseph and Mary wanted it to be. Christmas is rarely what we want it to be. We want a BB gun, “you’ll shoot your eye out!” We want a bicycle we don’t know how to ride. We want a happy family, someone is going to be on bad terms with someone. After all this is football season. We want, but God provides what we need instead.
When I was a kid, my Christmas was always half of what I wanted and half of what I needed. I knew immediately what the difference would be. The packages fell into two categories: hard and soft. The hard ones were toys. The soft ones were clothing. Once or twice my mom and dad fooled me by putting them in boxes, but this ‘feeling’ technique rarely failed me.
God gives us what we need at Christmas, not just what we want. There was a young wife and mother of two children whose husband was in the Air Force during one of the nation’s military conflicts. As Christmas approached, she gathered her children and headed for her parents’ home for the Christmas celebration. She arrived to find her parents’ home gaily decorated. The tree was glistening with lights and the presents were crammed beneath it. And, although her husband could not be present, it promised to be a happy time together.
Then, on Christmas Eve, came the news that her husband had been killed in combat, and the woman was devastated. While she was upstairs crying in her room, her parents, who now felt that the decorations were suddenly inappropriate, began to take them down. The lights were unplugged and the gifts put in a closet. Later, when the new widow came down the stairs, she saw the decorations gone and the tree darkened. “Where is everything?” she asked. When her father explained, the young woman, with a wisdom beyond her years, said, “No. Bring them back! Christmas was made for such times as these.” God touching our soul.
Christmas is rarely what we want it to be. But what if we let it be that way. In a dream, God tells Joseph not to worry, but to marry Mary anyway. With an angel, God tells Mary not to be afraid, but to be blessed. What if this year we didn’t worry so much about getting Christmas perfect but allowed the imperfections to become blessings? What if this year we loved one another in the same light that God loves each of us? This year, let’s just be ourselves and let each other be who we are.
Christmas is rarely what we want it to be. But don’t worry. Calm down. Emmanuel is the answer. God IS with us. Just because the bow on that present isn’t perfectly symmetrical doesn’t mean the child opening it won’t be surprised and blessed. Just because the baby came before the marriage doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you. Just because you have the right to hurt someone doesn’t mean you should. Just because you find yourself in a dark place, a blue Christmas, a winter wonderland of shadows, anger, and grief – doesn’t mean you are cursed.
God loves you. God is with you. God made a special trip one time just to be with you. It wasn’t necessarily the perfect plan: an unwed mother, a father worried about public opinion, a backwater state in the midst of an oppressive empire; but it worked out.
Christmas is rarely what we want it to be. The first one definitely wasn’t what we’d think it should be. But maybe that’s a part of the good news: God loves us anyway. God is with us, anyway. God is calling us to be with one another and love one another, anyway.
In Calcutta, India, outside of Shishu Bhavan, there hangs a sign that says:
People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,
LOVE THEM ANYWAY
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies,
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,
BE HONEST AND FRANK ANYWAY
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,
People really need help but may attack you if you help them,
HELP PEOPLE ANYWAY
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth,
GIVE THE WORLD THE BEST YOU’VE GOT ANYWAY.
God loves you in spite of you. This Christmas, in spite of family, friends, schedules, anxiety, and grief: love. Christmas is messy. Love the mess anyway.