By Rev. Stacy Sergent Lawton, Chaplain MUSC
Three Decembers ago, I expected that I would always decorate my Christmas tree alone. Like many of my expectations, that turned out to be wrong. I also expected that my Christmases would always include the smell of a Fraser fir in the living room. But not this year. One of my two new stepsons is allergic. Instead, my new husband assembled the artificial, pre-lit Christmas tree. I looked forward to the four of us decorating it together, telling stories and making memories all evening long. Instead, Will and the boys had finished putting all their ornaments (which were in one large box with cardboard dividers, not individually wrapped or in their original Hallmark boxes like mine) on the tree in about ten minutes. I had barely begun unboxing my own ornaments and placing them on the tree one at a time when the boys dug into the boxes themselves and started haphazardly hanging things on branches. They didn’t even give me time to tell them the stories of the ornaments. Instead, I had just started to tell Beau about one of my favorites he was putting on the tree, when I heard Jackson’s voice behind me asking, “Is this an egg?” followed by a cracking sound.
It was an egg once. Now it was hollowed out, with a green ribbon tied through the hole in the middle of it, and the original German lyrics to “Silent Night” painted all around the shell. I bought it in Salzburg, Austria just after I had visited the birthplace of Josef Mohr, the priest who wrote those lyrics long ago. I had looked forward to sharing with my new family the memories of that trip as we unwrapped the ornament. Instead, I was picking it up off the floor where our 5-year-old had dropped it, inspecting it for cracks, and I was at a loss for words. I had expected decorating the tree for our first time together to be an hour or two of holiday magic. Instead, it was a frenzied activity during halftime of the football game. Soon the game drew them back in and the boys were rushing off to play while I finished hanging the ornaments myself. The idyllic expectations I had for my first holiday season with my new family had set me up for disappointment.
As I ponder these things in my heart in light of the stories of my faith, I see a lot of “insteads” in the story of Jesus, from the very beginning. When Mary imagined the birth of her first baby, she probably pictured being at home, surrounded by family. Instead, she was in a stranger’s barn, with only a few animals, her new husband, and eventually a bunch of shepherds still smelling like the fields they had just left. Joseph certainly expected that when Mary had her first baby it would be, you know, his. Instead, he watched in wonder as she gave birth to a baby both she and an angel had told him was the son of God. I have no idea what the second person of the Trinity expected from incarnation, but I would be surprised if all of those expectations were met. Part of being fully human surely meant that he learned firsthand the pain and frustration, and surprise and delight, of unmet expectations. And part of being God must mean, I hope, that God is always at work in the midst of our “insteads” to bring about something wonderful.