Folks all over the world from all kinds of religious and non-religious backgrounds and traditions are preparing to celebrate Christmas. In many ways and for many people, Christmas, despite the name, has long ceased being a Christian holiday at all. Sure, there are the obligatory announcements from pastors and greeting cards reminding us, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but, let’s be honest, frequently, that is nothing more than a requisite, religious head nod before we get to the good stuff on the dinner table, under the tree, and in the stockings. Nonetheless, wrapped up in these realities are three Christmas experiences that both appear to be common to every celebrant regardless of their motivation or background and repeat the experience of the witnesses to the birth of Christ – waiting, fulfillment, and surprise.
In the days leading up to Christmas, we wait with great anticipation and longing. We know it is coming. Many know they will get a gift or two. We will get to see family and friends. Work, for most, will stop. We look forward to it. When I was a child, this waiting was magnified by the passing of an arbitrary date on the calendar after which there were no more Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or any other days, but only days called “it’s too close to Christmas.” One day, you were running errands with your mom after school, you had been well-behaved on said errands, you asked for a pack of baseball cards in the check-out line, and your mom said, “You know, you’ve been very good while we’ve been running around, so, yes, you can get a pack of baseball cards.” The next day, the same scenario but the request is met with, “It's too close to Christmas.” The waiting has begun.
On Christmas day (or Christmas Eve if your family is a bunch of cheaters) the waiting ends. Now is the time for fulfillment – the satisfaction of getting gifts you waited for and of seeing others enjoy the gifts you give to them. This is a time of joy, a time of reveling in tangible expressions of love for one another. It’s better than a birthday, because everyone gets to be simultaneously happy for themselves and for everyone else around them.
With fulfillment comes surprise. Sure, you may have made a list, dropped hints, or even bought and wrapped your own presents, but there are often surprises – gifts that lead to the rhetorical, “How did you know?” or “I didn’t think you’d remember,” those precious words that issue forth from someone who feels surprisingly seen and deeply cherished. This is the gift you take with you when you visit family. It’s your answer to, “What did you get for Christmas?”
The beauty of waiting, fulfillment, and surprise is that these are largely are not contingent on one’s means or circumstances. Both the humblest and the most extravagant celebrations are full of waiting, fulfillment, and surprise. They even have a way of breaking into the hard years: the first Christmas without a loved one, the Christmas without a deployed spouse or parent, or what you know will be the last Christmas you get to spend with someone. This, I think, is why the experience of Christmas is so universal.
For the Christian, waiting, fulfillment, and surprise make sense as part of the Christian experience because, waiting, fulfillment, and surprise have always been part of what we are celebrating. The whole story of Christ’s birth is one of waiting, fulfillment, and surprise.
The waiting associated with Christmas really began with God’s words to Eve after the fall in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” As redemptive history unfolded, the waiting was increasingly protracted. However, the promise of a seed was reiterated time and again and was even ensconced in divine covenants made with Abraham and David and announced by countless prophetic promises from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many others. Nonetheless, in the midst of Roman occupation that followed a less than glorious return from exile, the waiting intensified for some, began to be questioned by others, and was even abandoned by many. It is into this reality that the angel speaks the words, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). In short, the waiting is over. The fulfillment has come!
The allusion to the ancient promises and prophecies of Israel in the angel’s words to the shepherds are even more pronounced when read in their context. Previously, in Luke, John the Baptist’s birth is presented by his father, Zechariah, as the fulfillment of ancient promises (Luke 1:57-80). Jesus’s birth was foretold to Mary as being the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant (Luke 1:26-33). Mary’s responsive song, The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), also interprets this news as Yahweh remembering his mercy and fulfilling his promises “as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:55). Following the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, Luke records Simeon’s response to the news of Christ’s birth as Yahweh’s fulfillment of both ancient promises and a personal promise from the Holy Spirit “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Finally, we are told the prophetess Anna, “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38, ESV). Jesus is the promised seed of Eve, Abraham, and David. He is the promised redeemer of Israel. He is the Messiah on whom rested all of Israel’s hope. He is the fulfillment of everything.
If you read close, there was also a surprise that came with the birth of Christ. To be sure, this certainly should not have been a surprise, but the rest of the New Testament bears witness to the fact that, for many, it was. What was the surprise? Read the angel’s words to the shepherds again, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10). Now read Simeon’s response, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Jesus was being announced not only as the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises for Israel, but as the fulfillment of these promises “for all people,” and as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”
Surprise, Jesus is for everyone! Again, when we read the ancient promises and prophecies, this should not be a surprise. The promise of Genesis 3:15 predated the existence of Israel. The promises to Abraham included the promise, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Isaiah announced in his first Servant Song, “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6). Even still, this detail was surprising for many.
While the Christmas experience of waiting, fulfillment, and surprise may not be universal, it is certainly a very common, shared experience. It is also a very ancient, shared experience that goes all the way back to the birth of Christ. Further, it is written into our liturgy via the church calendar– in Advent we wait, in Christmas we rejoice over the coming of Christ in the fulfillment of the promises, and in Epiphany we celebrate the surprise, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. As you experience the emotional ebb and flow of waiting, fulfillment, and surprise that comes with Christmas, lean into the joy of the experience that you share, in some small way, with those who heard the angel’s message, and let it all usher you on to Christ for whom we waited, who came in fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises, and who surprised the world with good news for all peoples. And let it teach you to look forward to Christ’s return, the fulfillment of promises yet to be, and the surprises that will certainly come with glory.