An annual surprise

By Greg Jones

Christmas comes as no surprise. At sunset on December 24th, every year, Christmas comes. Ready or not – here it is. And there it goes.

Kids of course love it, awaiting the day like none other. And grown ups love it too — of course. But, you know, life takes its toll and those childhood joys of Christmas grow mixed. The gifted memories of joy grow mixed with other memories — other packages — other bundles — some of grief, some of sorrow, some of ‘who am I and what do I mean?’

Sometimes, when Christmas comes, there are some things in and around and under the family tree that are even too painful to open up again every year. And yet reopened they are.

But, either way, between happy and humbug, whether joyed or jaded, now, Christmas comes as no surprise. And in a way that is too bad.

It is too bad if Christmas comes as no surprise because we are so deeply used to its coming. So deeply entrenched in a culture that worships the ‘holidays.’ So deeply entrenched in a society that sings Christmas songs in October and confuses the deeply meaningful with the deeply meaningless every year in a vast feeding frenzy of consumption and sweets. It is too bad if Christmas comes as no surprise because we hear the word, celebrate the time, and then move right along as best we can.

It is too bad, because Christmas is about the most surprising thing that ever happened.

To us, today, these days, in a Christmas crazy culture — and amidst all our baggage social, filial and mental — too often Christmas comes as no surprise — but it should.

It should feel like what it is. It should stir us deep to our souls. It should remind us every year of who we are, and what we mean, and why we can have hope no matter what. Christmas comes as no surprise — but friends — if we can for a moment receive and unwrap together the promise that God has come into the world to be with us, for us, in us, around us, among us, alive and well, and that this promise happened, and that this promise is happening, and that it changes everything — that’s a surprise like nothing else.

Now don’t get me wrong — when Jesus Christ was born — Mary knew it was coming. It wasn’t a factual surprise — it wasn’t unanticipated — it wasn’t as if the poor girl all of a sudden just had a baby and it turned out to be God himself.

No, no. Mary knew it was coming.

First of all — pregnant women usually do know something’s going on. And second of all — God told her.

That’s right. Indeed, long before Jesus was born, Mary knew. Mary knew. Mary knew because God had been preparing her — all her life. Long before Gabriel announced to Mary that the love of God would come into the world as a living and breathing person through her — Mary talked with God. Long before Jesus was born, or before she was engaged to Joseph, or before Ceasar Augustus, Emperor of Rome had ordered all to be counted so they might be taxed and controlled properly — Mary talked and walked with God.

Ancient tradition says Mary was offered to God’s service by her parents, Joachim and Anna, and that she was raised and educated in the Temple from age 3 to age 14. Tradition says Mary was raised to be a holy woman, a righteous one of Israel, taught the Scriptures, traditions, and yearnings of Israel, and trusting in the promises of God to his beloved people. Tradition says all her life Mary had an ongoing prayer life of conversation and listening to God’s word.

And that’s what it means when we hear that Mary was favorable to God — she was a humble and righteous woman — who didn’t know everything but she knew how to say, “Here I am Lord, I’m waiting on you.”

Mary knew that to know and love God is itself Good News.

Just like many women of Israel before her — Miriam, or Deborah, or Hannah, or Judith — Mary knew that to know and love God was the only way things would be right in this life for her and for anyone. So, when Gabriel told her she was going to bear the Messiah of God she was able to sing what only the faithful can sing — that old, old song of hope and joy that God will make all things well. Yes, friends, Mary knew. She was the first person on Earth to know — that the Good News of God was going to become totally and fully and presently real — and she knew first.

But even still — even for the one who knew God was coming into the world — through her faithfulness — Christmas came as a surprise to Mary. It came as a surprise, because it’s one thing to hope or seek or prepare for a wonderful gift — it’s entirely something else to receive it. Especially when that gift is the presence of God. In the flesh. For real. For you.

Wouldn’t you love that? To come down the stairs of life, in morning clothes made of wide-eyed wonder…to be completely and utterly stunned by what you behold — and then to cry out in joy with song and gladness? Wouldn’t you love for Christmas to be a surprise again? To unwrap the gift that God has given to all flesh?

I think Mary and Joseph were able to be surprised by the foretold birth of Christ, because they were prepared to grasp it. Just as children who know the fun of being tickled beg and wait to be tickled again only to burst out laughing as if surprised when they are tickled — the righteous always experience God’s grace as a joyful surprise — even when they believe it will come for them.

Do you want to be surprised by joy? Then get ready.

Mary dedicated her life to conversation with God; and when He gave the world the biggest gift of all time through her — she was ready to be the first to receive and unwrap it.

That’s what being a disciple is all about. We are preparing for grace, expecting grace, thankful for grace, and still surprised by it when it comes. Christmas comes as no surprise — unless you believe. Prepare for the Lord my friends — and get ready to be surprised.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones (‘Greg’) is rector of St. Michael’s in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

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