Two years ago, when Annie and I were preparing to meet Hazel for the first time, one of the things that kept coming up in our birthing class and in the books we read and from friends we talked with was how a birth plan can help reduce some of the stress that was going to happen very soon. They all recommended planning out the details you could plan for, like who would be there, what you’d bring, how you’d get there, that kind of stuff. I remember it was exactly 31 minutes from our front door to the maternity ward entrance. Annie’s mother would be at the house to watch the dog and greet us when we got home. We had the clothes, the car seat, and all the “welcome to the world” things staged and ready to go. We even had a playlist lined up. And admittedly, having all that in place helped.
I was thinking a lot about that while reading about the birth of Jesus. I wonder what Mary’s birth plan, as far as she had one, looked like? It would make sense that she expected to be surrounded by family. Her mother, probably her grandmother too, would be present, along with her cousins and maybe siblings if she had them. I wonder if her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, was supposed to be there too? Joseph likely fretted over the details of making sure the house was ready, ready with his family to pray for a safe delivery, food at the ready for all the guests that would be there for the birth of a firstborn. I wonder if it helped them destress to think that they’d be surrounded by the familiar when this baby, the Savior of the World, came.
And then the change of plans.
Mary was suddenly not going to be surrounded by the familiar anymore. Her home, the home Joseph had been lovingly preparing for the baby, wouldn’t hear Jesus’ first cry. Her mother and father, as far as we can tell, weren’t with them in Bethlehem. Her cousins and siblings, aunts and grandmother, wouldn’t be there. They were forced to travel, in that ninth month, to a distant town for what? For a powerful man to make sure they were registered. And Joseph, like any expecting father, worried and stressed the whole trip, knowing there was only so much he could do for Mary. Knowing in this distant town, it would only be distant relatives to help with the birth. Unfamiliar faces. Not the plan.
It feels like this whole year has been that way, right? A year of upended plans. Vacations had to be deferred, reunions had to be cancelled, big family get-togethers had to be altered because it wasn’t safe. The stress and worry of all that upheaval, how all of our plans have had to change, is getting to us. And even now, in the Christmas season, everything has to be different.
Family can’t come in from far and wide to wake up together and open presents. Instead, we have to settle for video chats over smartphones and computers, if we have that available. There aren’t the big family feasts with gaudy sweaters and rousing carols sung with relatives we see once, maybe twice a year. We didn’t get to enjoy Christmas festivals the same way, since gathering in big numbers just isn’t safe right now. And Christmas Eve worship is so different. We’re in our living rooms, or in our cars, or in a mostly-empty sanctuary or fellowship hall, instead of packed together to sing “Silent Night.” It’s not what we had planned on.
But maybe, in that way, this Christmas is closer to the first Christmas than we’ve had in a very, very long time. A Christmas marked by upended plans by a powerful outside force—whether that force is Caesar or Coronavirus doesn’t change much. A Christmas where relatives we hoped would be with us just aren’t. A Christmas where the familiar—whether the contours of a family home awaiting a new baby, or the rhythms of lights and carols and prophetic hopes—are thrown into unfamiliar territory. We are de-centered from the plans we had, and maybe that’s something to ponder, as Mary pondered the vision of the shepherds.
Because that first Christmas was thrown off of the expected plan. God’s birthplace was determined by the decree of Caesar and the Empire’s type of power. Mary and Joseph had to adapt to the circumstances. But the thing is, Jesus’ birth in a faraway town, with unfamiliar surroundings, with unfamiliar people, didn’t stop the saving work he came to do. God was born into the mess of humanity.
And if an upended Christmas is how the first one went, well, maybe that’s something to think about this Christmas as our plans have been upended. How is God calling on us to see this time of year differently, in a new and yet at the same time very old way? Perhaps, after we’ve been shifted off-center and the things we thought made this holiday special have been altered or upended or even cancelled, perhaps that is God giving us an opportunity to look again at this Christmas story, and see what God wants us to learn.
That the Christmas family reunions with the sweaters and carols are lovely, but they’re not what we’re celebrating at Christmas.
That the gathered family around the tree, opening presents from cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles are wonderful and joyful, but they’re not what we’re celebrating at Christmas.
That making the rounds and singing carols at neighbor’s doorsteps, and shuffling through crowds at Christmas festivals, and drinking hot chocolate while walking through tunnels of twinkling lights are magical and beautiful, but they’re not what we’re celebrating at Christmas.
That standing together in a darkened sanctuary singing “Silent Night” like we’ve done for two centuries are a holy reminder of our connection with the saints who have gone before us, but they’re not what we’re celebrating at Christmas.
What we’re celebrating at Christmas is that God showed up, in the midst of our broken plans, in the midst of our chaos, tossed about by the whims of Empire, for our sake. God in flesh was born, amid cries and blood and meconium, with joy and with holy worry, as a tiny, helpless baby born to two loving and fretting parents who had to change all their birth plans.
But God was born. And God in Christ showed us the way of righteousness. And Christ Jesus taught and healed and hoped and prayed and died and rose again. And Jesus, Savior of the World, reason for everything we hope for, center of what we are celebrating at Christmas, is still showing up for us, especially when all of our plans fall apart and our expectations are upended and what we thought was so important turns out not to change that simple, absolute fact—that “a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
That’s the only plan worth worrying about, and God already has it taken care of.
Thanks be to God. Amen.