Here’s the problem with Christmas. It is so stacked with nostalgic hopes and preconceived expectations that it inevitably leads to inordinate amounts of let down.
Year after year I determine that I’m going to enjoy the season, to savor every second, to make the most of the festivities, to be all things merry and bright. And year after year trivial arguments, hurtful misunderstandings, frustrated plans, and all the normal parts of being alive in this world invade my holiday cheer and I end up crying on Christmas Eve over family photos, wrapping paper, or finger mustaches. (It’s a long, dumb story. So don’t ask.)
You too? I’m not the only one?
We just want to feel the Christmas season. We just want the happiest time of the year to actually be what it claims to be. We just want some of what the angels brought the shepherd – great joy.
Yeah, I think that’s probably the thing top of our Christmas list, when we get down to it. We want joy.
We want all the hard things that happened this year to disappear for a little while. We want all the broken pieces that were smashed to the ground these last months to be gathered up and fixed. We want to sit in front of the lights of our Christmas tree and hold the hands of the people we love and we want to feel happy. We want to hear the angels sing, like they did that idyllic night so many years ago. Great joy, great joy, great joy.
It’s easy to decide how the angels should come, and when they should come, and the precise kind of joy they should bring. Come to my home, where there’s illness. Bring the joy of healing. Come to my home where there’s conflict and bitterness and cold hearts. Bring the joy of happy relationships. Come to my home, where there’s stress and anxiety and fear that there might not be a happy new year. Bring the joy of resources and rest and renewal. Come to my home where there’s apathy and discouragement and a feeling that no matter how hard I try I won’t achieve what I’ve been striving for. Bring the joy of vision and purpose and success.
But the angels of God, they don’t take direction from us humans.
Instead they come where we least expect them.
In the sky over a field. To mangy shepherds keeping watch over the flock. On night like any other night, normal, ordinary, unexceptional.
And the message they bring? It’s not usually what we asked them for.
A baby. A helpless infant. A child lying powerless in a manger, among smelly cows and in scratchy hay.
And in this glorious, unexpected way, they usher in joy. Great joy.
But we miss it. We miss it because we’ve piled up our list of how we expect the joy to appear. We’re expecting it to come in harmonious family dinners, in soul-riveting sermons, in devotions that connect to our emotions, in idyllic scenes of hot chocolate sipped around the Christmas tree, in magical December snowfalls, in holly jolly spirits, in the solemn stillness of candlelit services.
These lists of expectations steal the joy right out from under our feet, standing in tippy-toe looking for what we don’t have and missing what is right here.
It’s taking me years to get here, but I’m slowly inching my way toward realizing that Christmas doesn’t have to feel a certain way for it to be happy. (Every member of my family just sighed a relief, wondering why I couldn’t have come to this realization a few decades ago. Sorry guys.) I don’t have to get a real tree the day after Christmas. I don’t have to go to a midnight Christmas Eve service. I don’t need snow falling outside my window every day of December. (Let’s talk about my sweet husband offered to buy me a snowmaker.) I don’t have to be in a certain home, or with certain people, or doing certain things.
Christ’s coming brings joy. Great joy. Mega joy. And he brings it right where we stand, this very minute. All we have to do is look.
“Instead of filling with expectations, the joy-filled expect nothing–and are filled. This breath! This oak tree! This daisy! This work! This sky! These people! This place! This day! Surprise!” – Ann Voskamp
So we drop our expectations. We lower our high standards of the perfect way to celebrate Christmas. We stop demanding that God sends his joy in a certain way, to a certain place, at a certain time. And we open our hands and widen our eyes and we receive his real joy in this real moment.