When was your last Christmas surprise? Was it when a beloved family member showed up, unannounced for the holiday? Or was it when someone gave you a gift you didn’t even know you wanted until you opened it? Or was it when you were alone, watching the lights on the tree twinkle and you had a sudden awareness of an expansive peace flooding your heart? When was your last Christmas surprise?
Most of us have heard Luke’s version of the Christmas story so many times we can almost quote it word for word — just like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. We look at a creche and each one of us immediately begins to engage the story from our own perspective:
Some of us enter the story from a place of imagination. Maybe we think about Mary and Joseph, alone in the dark, while Mary, a child herself, pushes a baby into a ragged world of uncertainty, hardship and pain. Maybe we imagine the smell of the cave crammed with livestock. Or maybe the moms among us remember their own labor to give birth and wonder what it must have been like for Mary to give birth to Jesus with only Joseph, her betrothed, to serve as the midwife. A few of us may think about Joseph, who will undertake the responsibility of raising a child who belongs to only God-knows-Who.
Others of us will view the story from the squinty-eyed perspective of rational analysis. We have lots of unanswered questions! Beyond the fantastical claim that Mary was a virgin, we happen to know that this story wasn’t written down until well after the events were purported to have happened. How do we really know this story is true? What if the Gospel writer simply made it up for dramatic effect? And if the writer did such a thing, how are we to trust anything else in the story? And the bit about angelic choirs serenading shepherds in the middle of the night? Yeah, sure. Happens all the time, doesn’t it?
But regardless of whether we’re faithful believers, fanciful romantics or fervent doubters, there’s one thing that we all hold in common as we engage the story. Nothing about it is a surprise for us. And maybe that’s to our detriment. The believers cannot be surprised by the glory of this birth. The romantics cannot be surprised by the grittiness of this birth. The doubters cannot be surprised by the grace of this birth.
Yet, this story isn’t about us or about angels and shepherds or even about Mary and Joseph. This story is about God. This story is about a God who refuses to astound us with special effects. This is a God who shocks us by showing up in out of the way places amongst people on the margins who struggle for their daily bread. This is a God who awes us, not with thunder claps and lightning bolts, but with the whimpers and gurgles of a newborn swaddled in cloth. This is a story about a God who is too big to fit into our expectations of grandeur and certainty, but who takes up residence within the confines of humanity’s history embodied as a helpless infant. This is a God who enters moments of grime and doubt and transforms those moments into unexpected grace.
A year ago, we gathered to celebrate Christmas in this place after anxious hours of watching and waiting following the murder of a Wauwatosa police officer just a block away from Trinity Church earlier in the day. We prayed for Jennifer and all of those whose lives have been cut short by acts of violence. We knelt after Communion and sang Silent Night — just as we’ll do again in a little while.
There in the candlelight last year, I was surprised by Christmas all over again. No, I didn’t hear a Voice from above or see any angel choirs. My questions about the tragedy of human violence toward other human beings were not answered. My disappointment at the injustices we continue to foist upon one another in the name of the free market or the good of the nation or even religion itself did not magically disappear. My raw grief from the recent loss of my father to cancer wasn’t suddenly assuaged.
No, my Christmas surprise came as I looked around this room that night. The surprise of Christmas came in the form of the familiar faces of my sisters and brothers in Christ. I saw the faces of folks who had lived life — with all of its ups and downs, its changes and chances — and still had the audacity to pray. I saw the faces of folks who had struggled with their faith and yet still had the willingness and the courage to trust. I saw the faces of folks who were far from naive, and who were still unwilling to give in to the cynicism of our age. In the glow of the candlelight, in the simple melody of an oft-sung carol, I caught a glimpse of God’s presence…embodied in God’s people.
The raw, unfiltered message of Christmas is this: God so loved this world, that God would not, could not, remain far off from it. God took on human flesh in real time in a real place with real people. This coming of God to a backwater town to first-time parents from the wrong zip code reminds us that the God we worship is the God who inhabits all the wrong places at all the wrong times so that every place and every time can be redeemed. This God who comes to all the wrong people is the God who will not forsake any one of us. This God who displays the greatest power through the greatest helplessness is the God who comes to us in our own moments of helplessness and pain with the assurance that we are never, ever alone. This God who lives in eternal relationship as Holy Trinity is the God who invites us into ever-deepening relationships — both with God and with one another.
So tonight, dear people of God, I invite you to embrace these next few, holy moments. Breathe deeply into the stillness that is right now. No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, whether you are a staunch believer, a hopeless romantic or a definitive doubter — Christmas is here for you. Allow yourself to be surprised by God in this holy season. Christmas is here and it arrived as it always does — with a baby, gift-wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger — Jesus, Son of Mary and Son of God.