Expectations and Christmas

Fifteen years ago I was living in Phoenix Arizona and my mother—someone who was born in Brooklyn New York and has only thee times in her life crossed the Mississippi River—wanted to know what “IT” would be like.

“IT” was, of course, Christmas… and I knew exactly what she was talking about. The ninety-degree December in Arizona did not square with holiday landscapes created by the Frosty The Snowman, Jingle Bells, and Marshmallow World. Rather, the countryside described by Bing Crosby in White Christmas closely resembled the small New Jersey town I knew as a child. Where I grew up, there really was a danger of grandma getting run over by a reindeer. And if that wasn’t enough, the place where all of the cool holiday moves seemed to take place—New York City—was a mere ninety minutes away; Rockefeller Center and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade were considered to be next door neighbors.

So it was that year in the Phoenix desert when I had to come face-to-face with the expectations I had about Christmas as opposed to the reality of Christmas…
 my expectations of what Christmas was supposed to be and what it really was.

Granted, that year the only gap I had to deal with involved the difference between grainy sand and soft-falling snow… but the truth is we all have to do that. For the past four to six week, we have been fed this steady diet of wintry perfection, family harmony, and holiday bliss. This sense of a “magical” season is so pervasive that even Elvis once asked—in all of his Elvis-ness—”Why can’t everyday be like Christmas?” He sings that, of course, because Christmas is a special time. But as special as the time can be, for a lot of us Christmas is a mixed bag.
I don’t know about you, I don’t think my waistline or my glucose levels could handle it if every day was really like Christmas.

It is of course a time of coming together… it can also be a time when painful family issues flare up. It can be a time of receiving wonderful gifts… it can also be a time when the bank account runs lower than we’d like it to be. It can be a time of appreciation… it can also be a time when we feel guilty if the holiday and the family get-togethers and the meals don’t live up to expectations.

Expectations… those things we use in life to give us the lay of the land, to help us figure out “what’s what.” We may have expectations that we give to ourselves or that others give to us. but However big or small—valid or invalid—our expectations may be, on some level we all understand that the future is unknowable. And so we wrap ourselves with expectations because the unknowable can be very scary…

Not knowing if the job market is going to improve can be very scary. Not knowing if the soldiers we care about in distant lands are going to be safe can be very scary. Not knowing if a relationship that is struggling right now is going to work out can be very scary. Not knowing if you can avoid taking another drink can be very scary. Not knowing if the illness is going to get better can be very scary.

You know I think we forget, amidst the songs and the chocolate and the Black Friday sales, that there was a lot of fear that first Christmas too. Obviously Mary and Joseph had to be afraid when she started going into labor and he had not yet found a bed for his young wife. The shepherds in nearby fields were just going about their regular business… and when things started happening in the middle of the night, the Bible tells us that they were terrified. But it was at that moment that the unexpected happened.

The irony of Christmas is that, for a time that has so many expectations loaded onto it, it celebrates a God that defies expectation. But not only does this God defy expectations, He exceeds them. The King the Jewish people were expecting was expected to be born in a palace, not a barn. The Messiah everyone was expecting was supposed to be a great warrior, not a man of peace. The Christ was expected to come for Israel… instead he came for Israel and the whole world. He came to everyone with the exact same message the shepherds in the fields heard the angels say that first night, “Do not be afraid.”

That December in Arizona was not the Christmas I would have expected. Because before that Christmas, I had never been to a Posada… I had never eaten a holiday tamale… and I had never seen a cactus with Christmas lights. But because my expectations of Christmas were defied and exceeded, I was better able to see the Good News all of those things were trying to point to.

So this season we all gather here to hear once again “news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.” News that “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” News that “God IS WITH us.”

Notice those words: “is with.” Not “had once been with,” not “might someday be with,” but “IS with.” Because in the great question of humanity, whether the world is good or evil, whether we need to live in faith or fear, tonight we hear that the ultimate tiebreaker is Emmanuel, “God with us.” Good News of a God that simultaneously defies and exceeds our expectations.

Expectations that maybe even the King of Rock and Roll should revisit… because if “God IS WITH us,” then every day is truly like Christmas.

Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.