© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Christmas 2020. It is a Christmas movie that practically writes itself. Instead of a bright pink bunny outfit from Aunt Clara, we have our own wardrobe that won’t fit anymore. Instead of overbearing houseguests, we have awkward Zoom encounters with our in-laws. Instead of being enrolled in the Jelly of the Month Club, we have been laid off. Instead of a tension-filled reunion with a long-lost parent, we have nurses holding up phones at the bedsides of our loved ones.
The thing about Christmas movies—really, any movie—is that something has to go wrong or else there’s no chance for things to come back right again. That narrative tension can come from something as seemingly insignificant as a Red Ryder BB gun or from something as deeply impactful as a suicidal ideation, but the script needs to explore those “unscripted” moments of life, when the characters’ trajectories go off in a direction that they never would have planned. The magic of the Christmas movie genre is the way in which those deviations become the very crucible in which the beauty, hope, and love of Christmas come back to those characters. At least in that way, Hollywood gets the story right.
The story of Jesus’ birth is filled with characters whose best plans go awry. Mary, a young woman who was engaged to a man from Nazareth, had her own dreams of what her life might be. Maybe she looked forward to a big wedding with family and friends. Maybe she hoped to start a family and watch it grow. Maybe she wanted the joy of a comfortable but quiet life. None of that would be hers. “Greetings, favored one!” the angel Gabriel had declared to her nine months earlier. Instead of planning for a wedding, she was planning for a birth. Instead of celebrating with mothers and grandmothers, aunts and cousins, she was trying to explain to them what had happened. Instead of imagining a long and happy life, she already knew that pain and loss lay ahead.
Joseph, the carpenter who traced his ancestry back to the royal line, had his own plans for the future. Maybe he had saved up enough money to buy his betrothed something special. Maybe he dreamt of teaching his children how to help out in his shop. Maybe he imagined being known throughout Nazareth as a talented craftsman. All of that now had to give way to other plans. Instead of making arrangements for their first night together, he was trying and failing to find room in an inn. Instead of anticipating the joy of holding his first-born child, he was trying to figure out how to care for a son that was not fully his.
Like a skilled screenwriter, Luke gently acknowledges the contrast between the upended lives of Mary and Joseph and the comfortable lives of Augustus and Quirinius. The holy couple have had their lives turned upside down by those who never had to leave their palaces in order to be counted in the census. For those in authority, everything always went according to plan—a plan that had no need to take into account a young, expectant mother and her partner and their need for a room in which she could safely give birth.
Though not mentioned in the story, think of the innkeeper who had to turn the young couple away. Think of the farmer whose manger—whose feeding trough—Joseph borrowed. When those two men settled in for the night, how did they expect things to go? Neither could have anticipated who would come and knock on their door. What about us? What about our plans this Christmas? What in our lives is going the way we always thought it would?
On this holy night, the miracle of Christmas comes not to those whose plans are perfect—not to those whose lives are completely mapped out—but to those who didn’t want things to happen this way—to those who had something else in mind. At Christmas, God comes to those who are open and available for something beautiful and unscripted. And this year, of all years, when nothing is unfolding the way we would have hoped, we find within ourselves a new sort of availability for what God is doing at Christmas.
Think of the shepherds. Oh, to be one of those shepherds! To be on that hillside, watching the flock, living in those fields! To not have anything planned except to sit in the moonlight and stare at the sheep and tell the same stories over and over while listening out for trouble! Oh, to be perfectly and totally available when the angel of the Lord breaks through the darkness and proclaims the wonder of the savior’s birth! To not be so tied up with a plan or bound by a schedule that the multitude of the heavenly host would need to appear on someone else’s hillside! To be ready and able to go at once into Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place!
In the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s salvation comes into the world, and that birth is announced not in palaces or temples or comfortable suburban homes but in a field, by a manger, under an overpass, in a tent encampment, in a nursing home, in a hospital, on a computer screen in a bedroom shut off from the world. But that is exactly where God’s people are ready to receive the miracle of Christmas. For the first time I can remember, I am desperate to hear the good news of our savior’s birth, and, for the first time I can remember, I am ready to drop everything to go and meet him.
This year, nothing has gone the way we would have planned it. And that itself is a gift. The birth of Jesus is God meeting us in that difficult place where nothing seems to be going right, because, even when nothing is, God is there. This Christmas, let us set aside the scripts and plans we would normally follow and recognize this thing that God has done—this thing that God is doing. Thanks be to God that this year, of all years, God isn’t going to let us miss it.