Christmas Eve

Yesterday we were talking with our grandson, who is a couple months shy of his sixth birthday. Among other things, he explained to us that today was the day before Christmas and tonight is the night before Christmas. He has a pretty good sense of anticipation. Of course part of that anticipation is his knowledge that on Christmas Day he will receive presents. With somewhat over-indulgent grandparents, there will be plenty of presents. He is enjoying the anticipation of new toys. We try to adhere to the formula of something to read, something to wear, something to play with, and something that is an experience. Already a year ago he would open the packages containing clothing, quickly set those aside and move on to the ones that contained toys. His sister, who is 2 1/2, on the other hand, really enjoys clothes and sees each new outfit as an experience that is worthy of pausing and trying on the new outfit. Their grandparents, of course, are delighted with the excitement and joy that surrounds the holiday for the children.

Even though they understand a bit of the sense of anticipation and excitement, our grandchildren probably don’t have enough life experiences to really understand that there will be days in life that cannot be anticipated - times when life takes a turn that you don’t see coming. Being with people as they walk through those changes is a part of my professional life. In the past week, I officiated at a funeral for a woman who entered the hospital for what might have been a life-enhancing surgery. Things didn’t go as anticipated and she slipped into a coma and died. Later in the week I spent time with the adult children of a man who died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was not a young man, but no one had any way of knowing that he would lie down for a nap and die in his sleep.

When delivering the news of a recent death in the congregation, some people responded, “Are you kidding?” They know that this is not something about which their pastor would make a joke. They knew that I could not possibly be kidding, but the shock of the news was great enough that they couldn’t help but respond with some kind of statement that allowed room for a change of perspective.

Sudden and unanticipated deaths are not the only life-changing surprises that cannot be fully anticipated. Christmas always makes me remember the evening when my wife went into labor with the birth of our first child. It was a fairly long labor. We knew that the baby was coming. We had anticipated his birth. Despite the fact that we had been warned by many, however, we couldn’t fully anticipate how life-changing becoming parents would be. It was a wonderful experience, but one whose depth of meaning and emotion could not be anticipated even by careful listening to the reports of others.

Some days you wake in the morning and the entire day turns out differently than what you expected.

I think it must have been that way for Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas. Times were tough. The future looked dark. The oppression of the Roman authorities upon the people of Israel was severe. Now the emperor had issued a decree for a full census of the people. Registration required a trip to the ancestral home. In the case of Joseph and his betrothed, it would be a walk of 90 miles or so - a multiple-day journey. And the time for the baby to be born was drawing perilously close. If the baby were to be born on the trip, it would not be the first time such an experience occurred, but certainly more uncomfortable for the mother and enough to cause a delay in the traveling.

Imagine for a moment that you lived in the city of your ancestors and all of their decedents were ordered to return to that city. Your guest room would quickly fill up. That’s what happened to Mary and Joseph’s relatives. The guest room was full. Mary’s baby was born in the common room, where the animals were kept. Fortunately for them, the weather was good and the sheep were out with the shepherds that night. A manger became a makeshift crib. It was only the beginning of the surprises and changes that were to come.

According to the stories of our people, the angels didn’t wait for good political news. They didn’t bother with appearances to the rich and famous. They sang to shepherds, who had never before heard angel singing and were terrified by an event they had no way of anticipating. Even after the angels had departed from them, they were left quaking in their boots and decided to go right away, in the middle of the night, to see the thing that the angels reported.

The entire story is told in a single chapter of the Gospel of Luke. And our people have been telling that story every year in the millennia that have followed.

We’ve merged our Christmas traditions with pre-existing celebrations, we’ve modified the date and adjusted the hour as we learned more about the progression of time and the movement of our planet. We’ve gone through major calendar revisions and refined our ability to tell time. We’ve commercialized the holiday to a point that it would not be recognized by the parents of the child or any of his followers in the first two or three centuries after his birth.

Still, there is something wonderful about this day. There is an air of expectation. There is the possibility of meaningful change. Surprise seems to surround us. This is a day that is different from all of the others. We just don’t yet fully understand the impact of the day that lies ahead. It is a good day to watch the sunrise and greet the dawn with expectation and savor the anticipation that occurs on “the day before.”

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!