Traditions are comfortable, and many of us find great comfort in our traditions surrounding Christmas. My mother had a pattern of preparing for and celebrating Christmas, so we could expect several things to happen every year. My mother began Christmas shopping at the end of September. Right before Thanksgiving, Mom began baking and filled several large tins and many 5-quart buckets with cookies and other Christmas treats that would last through Groundhog Day. She also began playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. The week before Christmas, after we found a tree and set it up, Mom spent a couple hours whipping up batches of a mixture of Ivory Snow soap and water that we brushed onto the branches, until Procter & Gamble changed the formulation in the late 80s. Christmas morning, Mom made us wait until she and Dad had gone downstairs to turn on the lights and get either a movie camera or a film camera ready to capture the moment when we kids, eventually five of us, came down the stairs, youngest to oldest. Then, as we opened our gifts, Mom directed each of us to hold up the gift so she or Dad could take a picture. Even though we knew we could expect these things to happen every year, those moments when we first saw the gifts under the tree and when we opened them revealed something unexpected.
Celebrating Christmas, remembering the birth of Jesus, many of our traditions give us comfort because we know what to expect. We expect to see images of angels, stars, wise men, shepherds, and a manger. We expect to hear and sing songs about Jesus’ birth. We expect sermons and lessons to come from Matthew and Luke, where the accounts of Jesus’ birth are found, and we expect the preacher or teacher to come to the point that through his birth we can find new life in Jesus.
Yet with all those expectations, looking back through history and through the Scriptures, we also know that Jesus, his life and ministry, and the new life he offers were all largely unexpected. Even though the people of Israel were expecting the Messiah to come and rescue them, Jesus was not the Messiah whom they were expecting, and he didn’t arrive the way they were expecting. Matthew tells us that Joseph considered divorce when he was told Mary was pregnant. Luke tells us that Mary wondered about the announcement from the angel and that the shepherds were amazed by what the angels told them. John’s Gospel doesn’t describe the birth of Jesus but explains his coming in deeply theological, even mystical terms.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ coming, except that he came from Nazareth in Galilee (Mark 1:9). In fact, Mark reveals that Jesus came in direct conflict with the people’s expectations. At one point, when Jesus returned to his hometown, Nazareth, and began to teach, the people rejected him because he didn’t meet their expectations. Mark 6:3 tells us they said, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” The verse also tells us that “they took offense at him.” Mark reveals another conflict of expectations when Mary Magdalene told the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection; Mark 16:11 says, “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.” They knew Jesus, and yet they didn’t. They were expecting the Messiah, and yet they didn’t know what to expect.
In each of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, as different as they are in specific details and perspectives, there is a clear message that the life Jesus lived and the new life he brought were totally unexpected. While many had expectations for the promised Messiah, while others had expectations for Jesus himself, no one expected Jesus to live and die so that we might live forever. Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As we prepare for and celebrate Jesus’ birth, let us find comfort, peace, and joy in the unexpected life we receive through our faith in him.