One year the Christmas tree leaned. It didn’t matter how many times we unscrewed the tree stand and tried again. (Yes we sawed down the trunk, too.) All of our efforts failed, and the tree was held in a slightly less precarious position by a complicated grid of dental floss connecting it to shutters in the living room. If the light spilled through the windows just right you could see the rigging behind the illusion. Sometimes things don’t cooperate when you’re trying to get through your checklist on the way to Christmas.
This year things were a bit easier. Because of that extra week after Thanksgiving we were eager to get Advent started so the tree was up early. Check. Decorated not long after that. Check. Black Friday deals extend into December now, too, so it wasn’t long before we finished Christmas shopping. Check.
Then there were the treats to bake (check) and the Christmas cards to send which will probably end up being New Year’s cards again, but we’re working on it. Then there are thank you notes and invitations to answer. In process.
At church we have a checklist, too. We got through the Advent activities. Check. Christmas pageant. Check. Gift drive. Check. Decorating and meals. Special music. All the bulletins. Check, check, check.
A group at our church has been getting together periodically to discuss new spiritual practices we tried this Advent. This has the benefit of preparing our souls as we prepare everything else; at the same time it means the we have added something else to the checklist which, depending on the day, doesn’t always get done.
I don’t know how things pile up like this.
People have been getting ready for Christmas for a long time — buying gifts, sending cards, decorating, putting together Christmas pageants. But something about our urgency today seems different. If you were to follow most of us around with the camera you might think that Christmas itself would not have come without our efforts, like somehow Mary and Joseph wouldn’t make it to Bethlehem unless we chose the two-day shipping option.
Maybe it doesn’t matter how we prepared for Christmas this year, or any year. It will always happen, with or without us. God has come as Jesus. And we can plan and make lists and do all the things that we can do and it will not make a difference in light of the one who was, who is and who is to come.
G.K. Chesterton said: “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.”
It happens without us. All of a sudden we discover the surprise again. This is what the story tells us.
The Christmas story we read every year comes from Luke. Luke is the most the best storyteller among the Gospel writers, so it makes perfect sense that he can tell us about the birth of Jesus with the winsome images of Mary and Joseph adoring the cooing child.
Except that Luke doesn’t say too much about the dramatic birth and no room in the inn. Immediately the scene changes to shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. They have had no chance to prepare. They have no gifts or carols, no Christmas cards or cookies. Christmas arrives unlooked for, unprepared for, a complete surprise in the ordinary course of their lives.
An angel appears. The shepherds are terrified. This does not begin as a pleasant or asked for experience. But the angel says “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Luke doesn’t linger with Mary and Joseph because that’s not why Jesus has come. Luke visits the shepherds and the angels so that we can hear the birth announcements: to you is born. To you is born a savior, a Messiah. To you is born the presence of God in the midst of creation. To you is born the end of your grief and suffering and the very reason for your being. To you is born the purpose of your life, the great adventure the call of God to follow. To you is born nothing less than the way of heaven in the midst of earth, like God’s red carpet has unrolled all the way to your feet.
You have not prepared. You can never be prepared for it. Jesus is born to you.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Saturday of the month.