Expecting Christmas

Walking around Manhattan this week, now that we're in the final countdown to Christmas, I was particularly aware of the wash of Christmas music.

Waiting for a subway on my way to visit a friend in the hospital, I heard a version of "What Child Is This?" played by two musicians as a kind of call and response in that intricate and haunting style of classical Spanish guitar.

A couple of days ago, while trying to do my part of the list for our girls, I walked past a German oompah band playing "O Tannenbaum" and other favorites on brass--and it was lovely to stop for a moment.

On Friday night, hurrying to a meeting I was already late for, I zoomed past one of those little electronic stores with the big "Going Out of Business" sign that tries to lure you in, even though they're not going out of business. 

And they were blaring Christmas music out of these immense speakers, and the song they were sending down the length of 26th Street was "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," which isn't one you hear all that often. It's an oldie and a...yeah....

And all this music, all of my to'ing and fro'ing this week made me remember a sermon I heard several years ago by a pastor I admire. And her sermon was titled "All She Wanted for Christmas...Was a Nap."

Because without all that music to keep me going, I think I would have been fast asleep about ten days ago.

It's true that Christmas is a time of tremendous expectations, and there's a way in which shopping and cleaning and cooking and wrapping and visiting can take more out of us than they seem to put back into us.

Sometimes in this season, it's the "long winter's nap" and the vision of children "nestled all snug in their beds" that we long for most of all.

Expectations can be so exhausting.

I think that's why the season of Advent, these weeks before Christmas, seems so full of counter-cultural potential. They imagine such a different way of preparing for the birth of Jesus--one that can't be rushed, one that can't be shoe-horned in between trips to the mall.

The time comes when it comes, and it unfolds as it unfolds--and it's an invitation for each of us to stop rushing and for something within each of us to unfold slowly, too.

It is so foreign to our way of living...so foreign to so many of our expectations. 

So many of us demand a lot of Christmas and demand a lot of ourselves at Christmas.

And yet, as today's Scripture reminds us, the story of Christmas, the story of the birth of Jesus, is precisely about the arrival of something foreign to our expectations and foreign to our familiar way of life. It's a story about learning a whole new set of rules and about learning to see the world with new eyes.

After all, the old rules were utterly clear about what happened next when you found that the young girl to whom you had been betrothed was already with child. The ancient world was immensely serious about betrothal--legally, you were already considered bound to one another, and there was no easy way to unbind you. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Deuteronomy declared that death was the appropriate punishment for infidelity.

By the time of Jesus, it appears that some of the religious requirements surrounding infidelity may have softened; but, with that said, "softened" isn't really the right word for it. Because the punishment of death had been replaced by a formal, public renunciation of the woman--a ritual that would have shamed her and her family for life.

So, the old rules were explicit about young girls soon to be married who turned up with child.

Now, we don't know much about Joseph. Many suspect that he had died by the time Jesus began his public ministry.

Jesus is referred to as "the carpenter's son" at least on one occasion, so it seems as if Joseph's involvement did extend past his time in the Gospel stories. At least somebody remembered him along the way. Somebody looked at Jesus and saw something of Joseph.

But what?

It's hard to say.  Today's Scripture suggests just one thing about Joseph's personality. See if you hear it in the story, too.

Because when Mary is found to be with child, the Gospel says, "Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly."

He is just. To put it another way, he is righteous, righteous.

But wait a minute: hold up there for just a second.

Didn't we just say that the legal thing--the righteous thing--for a man to do in his position was to renounce his fiancée in public?

We did just say that. 

And so, what we need to see is that Joseph was a man who colored inside the lines, who was committed to his faith and committed to following Torah and its laws. And where those laws were explicit, well...for a man like Joseph, the path of duty...the path of righteousness...that would have been explicit, too.

But curiously, even before the angel of the Lord visits him in a dream, Joseph resolves to bend those expectations and to act really in the face of everything that his time...and place...and station in life had trained him to do when he met the unexpected.

He resolves to stand aside quietly and to leave Mary and her family with their dignity intact. So he doesn't do what would have been expected. He follows the pull of something else.

In being righteous and yet, even so, unwilling to put Mary to shame, Joseph hears the call of something deeply counter-cultural for a man like him. And what is so remarkable about him is that he has the wisdom and the courage to follow that call.

Joseph didn't know that Christmas was even coming; but if you ask me, he heard the call of Advent just the same. He heard its quiet, insistent longing for a world that follows different rules. A world that seeks to live in the light of great promises and which is no longer trapped by familiar expectations.

He heard Advent's invitation to live a life in which, at last, love dares to speak its name. And somehow, in that moment, he knew that love's name is the only one that matters.

The story does not go on to tell about the role that Joseph played in the life of young Jesus.  We don't know if Joseph even lived long enough to teach Jesus much about carpentry, much less anything else.

But we know that the love that Jesus talked about--the love he stood for--the love he died for--was just that kind of rule-changing, deep-seeing kind of love...just that kind of non-abandoning, instinctive, sheltering, protecting, guiding love...just that kind of patient, quiet, healing love.

Love that was strong enough to grasp for something different undeterred by conventions and expectations and limitations. And that's the love of Jesus.  And the love of his father, Joseph.  And the love of God.

In all the years since the lead up to that very first Christmas, we've surrounded the season with so many expectations of our own. A family gathers, and our good humor is invited, but our worry is not. The person we were before is invited, but the person we have become is not. Our children are invited, but their energy is not, their language is not...Lord, help us all...their music is NOT.

The time we spent searching for the perfect gift is matched by an eleventh hour, "Gee it's just something to open" shrug of a present in return. No wonder that all so many of us really want for Christmas is that nap.

But Advent invites us to let go of all those expectations. Advent calls us to remember the love of Jesus and Joseph and the love of God. It calls us to let God's peace gradually warm our souls, freeing us for new expectations and the birth of something within us and for us: the arrival of Emmanuel--God with us. Advent calls us to wait for the arrival of hope and to see the shadowy outline of a new world that is just beginning to dawn.

For Joseph, to hear the call of God's love was the dawn of a distinctly countercultural vision. And the Christmas that lives in the heart remains profoundly countercultural, too. At its core, Christmas is foreign to everything about us but the power of our capacity to love and be loved.

And its bold claim is that, in the end, it is our capacity to love and be loved that is the most important thing about us.

In these final days before Christmas, I don't know what different kinds of music you'll encounter as you go about the work of preparing. But underneath it all, may you hear the quiet hymn that is God's great love song to you and to us all.

And may it strengthen you to follow love's call with joy and purpose, letting go of everything else.

Let every heart prepare him room.

Let us pray. God of waiting and expectation, help us welcome you with joy as we look at the world with new eyes and open hearts unafraid to break any rule but the rule of loving you and all that you have made. Amen.