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Surprised by Christmas

Last year about this time, the year’s first snowfall surprised everyone. We were caught off guard, though it was mid-December and weather folks had predicted a snowstorm in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., where we lived.

Like many people that day, I drove in spite of the hazards. Traffic was a mess, and there were accidents all over. Seeing snarled traffic and vehicles spinning out of control as I wheeled along cautiously, I questioned our priorities. Driving was not just foolish. In many cases, it was hazardous. Yet I was out there on the road.

Snowstorms remind us that none of us is in total control. And at the very least, many of us slow down for a little while. Sometimes we even reconsider our priorities and cancel commitments. Is that meeting really worth risking life and limb?

Like the inevitable snowstorm, the Christmas season also always seems to catch us by surprise, even though it is on the calendar every year. Our churches prepare us during Advent to celebrate one of the most important moments of our Christian faith. Advertisers urge us to buy, with a relentless countdown to Dec. 25.

In spite of all the warnings, however, Christmas and all its attendant activities just cannot seem to get fully squeezed into my schedule. Paradoxically, we always seem to be surprised by Christmas, though we have prepared for it.

Something like that happened to people when Jesus was born as well. A common theme of all those beloved Bible stories is shock, surprise, wonder, amazement and even discomfort.

The Messiah’s coming was foretold in the Old Testament, but the birth in Bethlehem still caught people off guard.

Zechariah could not understand how he and his wife would become parents of the Messiah’s forerunner. Mary’s first response, upon hearing what was to happen to her was to ask, “How can this be?” Joseph was so stunned by Mary’s pregnancy that he prepared to divorce her but was persuaded otherwise by an angel in a dream.

Even so, the two of them seemed remarkably unprepared when they went to Bethlehem at the height of Mary’s pregnancy and had no place to stay. The little town of Bethlehem had been predicted by Micah as the place of birth for a great Messiah to be born, but only a stable could be found for this noble birth.

Shepherds were busy doing their work but were caught off guard by the angels’ proclamation of the Savior’s birth. They joyfully interrupted their schedules – leaving their sheep behind – to go and see. What they witnessed led them to praise and glorify God in ways that amazed others.

Hard-hearted Herod and his counselors studied the Scriptures and discerned that Bethlehem was the place. He reacted by trying to defeat the very promises of God. The wise ones, following signs in the sky, still felt, nevertheless, that the king must have been born in Jerusalem. Special interventions were needed to get them to the right place.

From our perspective, these people had enough information to know what they needed and to do the right thing. Yet, in most cases, they were caught unawares. Surprise and inconvenience are rife throughout this text.

Surprise and inconvenience continue to be themes for us as well. Today the busyness of the season threatens to overwhelm the joy – to make Christmas a burden instead of a blessing.

From my perspective, the Christmas season and its busyness is becoming more and more overwhelming. Is it my imagination, or are stores decorating and malls playing more Christmas music sooner? Are there more lights than ever on houses and trees? Are they going up earlier and earlier?

Do not get me wrong. I like limited doses of Christmas music, and I like Christmas lights. You will likely see some on our newly acquired house in Elkhart, Ind. Putting up Christmas lights is one more chore at a time of year when people seem on the verge of burning themselves out with extra activities: shopping, partying, concerts, social obligations and hospitality.

This season supposedly honors Christian faith in the arrival of a small, unrecognized child. And it is a season that the wider culture says should pay attention to family, love, relationships and friendships. Yet it is harder and harder to get together with others, whether to fellowship or socialize. Everyone is too booked. So some institutions and businesses schedule their Christmas parties before or after December.

I am not pointing fingers here. After all, I was one of those fools behind the wheel last year. And my December is as hectic as anyone’s.

Last year, my wife and I were even too busy to fulfill a beloved annual tradition, attending a performance of the Messiah. In a season ostensibly about the arrival of our Messiah, we had other things to do rather than hear again the Messiah’s story performed by wonderful musicians and singers. “I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now.”

Rather than informing and converting us, the Christmas season has become an intensification of a problem we live with all year, another burden. Busyness and oversaturation are among the most pressing spiritual challenges of our day. (In my last church, the congregation asked the elders to look at the question of busyness, but the elders were so busy themselves that it took almost two years for them to comply!)

The hectic insanity of December and the traffic woes of that first snowfall both call into question the wisdom of living this frantically.

Is there a solution to our hyperactivity?

Every once in a while, something beyond our control brings us up short, causing us to question how we live. Someone has surgery, faces a life-threatening illness or gradually recovers from a terrible accident and finds a new, slower, life-appreciative pace that helps them give thanks for each day and encourages them to pay better attention to God and their loved ones.

Or a snowstorm causes us to cancel business as usual. (People in Elkhart still talk of the snowstorm of 1978, let alone the ice storm of 2002!) Or a power outage dims the lights and shuts off the television and computer. Suddenly we have way more time on our hands, with opportunity and freedom for conversation and relaxation, nurturing relationships and caring for ourselves.

Social philosopher Albert Borgmann (who is informed by his Christian world view) notes that people invariably comment on how much they enjoy the respite and change of pace during such interruptions. But he also notes an irony. We still do not alter our lifestyle. As happy and nostalgic as that pace feels, most of us return to busyness within days, if not hours.

Why do the lessons of such uncontrollable interruptions not make a deeper impact on us? Are we so weak-willed? Are we at the mercy of principalities and powers, forces beyond our means?

Two years ago, I attended a consultation with Borgmann at the University of Montana where he teaches. He greatly influences my understanding of life in our consumer and technology-driven culture.

Borgmann knows how busy and pressured we are but insists that we have choices in how we live. Much depends on our own decisiveness, deliberation and discipline. At the consultation, he asked when was the last time we could say any of the following: “There’s no place I would rather be”; “There is nothing I would rather do”; “There is no one I would rather be with”; and “This I shall remember well.”

Such times, he says, are a “moment of grace where things are properly centered.” We were created for many such moments but, we experience far too few of them. Those four statements can help us discern and value what is good in life and help us decide about commitments, priorities and calendars. May we have and choose many such moments this Christmas, and may they seed a way of life that extends throughout the year.

This is a good time to examine our commitments and set new directions. Advent begins with the story of John the Baptist calling us to turn around and repent, making God’s priorities our own. We see how the Christ child came not in accomplishment and splendor but in quietness and anonymity. His arrival was one of those surprising interruptions of God that points us to a different way of life.

Snowstorms and Christmas pressures can be nuisances or obstacles, to be sure. But they are also opportunities to re-evaluate, make different choices and live differently the whole year round.

Not only do I hope to hear the Messiah again this year, I intend – and invite you, too – to live in such a way that Jesus the Messiah is my focus always.

Arthur Paul Boers, a Mennonite minister and Benedictine Oblate, teaches pastoral theology at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.