It was an ordinary day. Perhaps Mary was weeding the family garden patch in that poor backwater community of Nazareth when an angel, named Gabriel, unexpectedly appeared.
The angel had an unusual message for Mary: “You have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High . . . . His kingdom will never end.” When Mary pointed out the obvious flaw in the scheme, that she was a virgin, Gabriel said: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That was unexpected.
While we’ve heard the story so many times that it may have lost its freshness, Mary, caught up in adventure of the moment, was surprisingly cooperative with the strange plan: “Here I am, the Servant of the Lord. Let it be as you have said.” (See Luke 1:27-39.)
Some days later, as Mary was leaning into the amazing secret growing inside of her, she visited her elderly relative Elizabeth, who was also unexpectedly expecting. Elizabeth, being farther along in the process, was able to prepare the young woman for what lay ahead. Doubtless Mary also talked to her mother about what she would experience when when the time came. She likely played the scenario over and over in her mind: what to expect when you’re expecting. It was a bit scary, but also exciting to dream and plan.
Then the order arrived about Caesar’s census and the requirement for Joseph and family to return to his ancestral home of Bethlehem to be registered. A very pregnant Mary had to make the long, arduous trip to the southern hill country with him. After four days of travel, imagine their relief as they finally approached Bethlehem. Fortunately, the baby had not come yet. Mary, beyond exhaustion, was going to make it to a comfortable bed for the night.
They wandered through the busy streets of the little town, looking forward to a place to sleep. After yet another host shook his head, lamenting there wasn’t a single bed available in the village because of the census, they began to despair. This was not what they expected.
Poor Joseph, so disappointed over their misfortune, could find nothing better than a stable. Imagine Mary’s effort to smile as she finally lay down on some hay for the night. Of course, Joseph wasn’t to blame, but this was not the warm bed she dreamed about during the exhausting journey. But at least they weren’t sleeping outside any more. Perhaps Mary was just about to fall asleep when she realized the straw beneath was wet. Her water had broken. This was not how she expected it to go. She started to sob. Then came the pain.
After hours of labor, she finally heard her baby’s first cry. Felt him snuggle into her breast. Watched his tiny fists open and close. Looked deep into those brand new dark eyes: more beautiful than anything she had ever expected to see. Suddenly, all the disappointment and fear was gone: “For unto us a child is born.” And the whole world was forever different.
It is Christmas Eve in this unexpected year of 2020, when almost nothing has gone as we hoped. No one could have imagined a pandemic. No one thought the election could be that contentious. We didn’t imagine so many would lose jobs, so many die. As we near the end of this year of unexpected pain, we long for it to be over, resigned to the now expected cycle of illness, and death.
Christmas, though, invites us to visit again that first manger scene, the stable in Bethlehem on that dark night so long ago. The animals round the crib nudge us to let go of the discouragement of 2020 and open to an unexpected expectancy. What has been in the past is not the limit of what can be in the future.
2000 years after the first Christmas, feel the brush of angels’ wings, hear the faint notes of a heavenly choir, see Mary’s exhausted, joyous smile. And in that imagination let go of darkness, grief, despair, daring to open your soul to the expectancy of the birth of the Prince of Peace.
Because “unto us a child is born,” in this year, especially this year, we can expectantly say with Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And every kind of thing shall be well.”
* Photo of the Shepherds’ Field, Bethlehem.