The Christmas story sounds strangely familiar, not just because it is well known history but because it is in part our story, too. Who of us has not experienced shocking interruptions of what we had hoped would be a predictable course of events?
More than 2,000 years ago, no one was prepared for God to actually do what had been long predicted by the prophets. It was easier to believe that a Messiah, a Savior, would come some day than to think that it could happen in their lifetime.
A baby? Did the angel say "child?" Was that an angel? Who was ready for a baby?
Reactions to surprise varies between believing it is from God and immediately submitting, like Mary, or deciding to quickly dispense with the discomfort, assuming someone has done something wrong, like Joseph's first reaction to Mary's condition.
Part of the surprise was the original cast of characters God chose. Mary was an unwed teenager who had "never known a man." She likely thought of herself as a poor prospect for motherhood. Joseph was a descendant of religious leaders, surely expecting the propriety of a traditional marriage before fatherhood. Herod was a paranoid political figure. The Magi were foreigners, educated scientists of the day, who were not a part of the Jewish faith. The shepherds were just regular working folk, unlikely to be esteemed in religious circles because they could not keep all the ceremonial laws. Who out of that cast would expect to be chosen?
And circumstances were just as inconvenient. A pregnant woman traveled 80 miles walking or on a donkey to give birth in a stable for animals because the government had passed a decree demanding a census. An angel, then a host of angels, announced the arrival of the baby who would be God's presence on earth. In this story, God does not come in the form of a conquering hero. In fact, His answer to our hopes and fears is a baby that needs human care and patient attention before He saves us from our own destructive ways. How odd it is to demand that humans expend energy to help God.
No one in the Christmas story can receive Him without some adjustment to their regular lives. In fact, as they receive Him, their lives are not just regular anymore. Now they will live in adjoining worlds -- the baby who will become a great teacher, and give his life as a sacrifice, is the door to heaven. Those who receive him experience an access to heaven while living on earth because heaven came to earth in him.
Of course learning to bridge two worlds is a risky and uncomfortable business. Joseph and Mary become refugees to escape the political figure's attack. The Magi return to their home by a way that will avoid contact with those who demand destruction of the competition. The shepherds return to the field, praising God but wondering how what they have seen relates to their everyday lives.
God came in a way that would reconcile the differences and distances between groups. If shepherds and Magi, if a poor couple and the Roman Caesar, if stars and animals and crowds unaware can be combined in the story of God's special arrival, then cooperation among different groups for the good of all would seem to be God's way.
Once upon a time, God interrupted the lives of people to make them part of a special story. Those of us who commemorate the story are also part of it. During Advent we prepare for Christmas not merely as a ritual but as a hoped-for divine interruption. We look to recognize in the interruption of our routines a chance to see God's arrival again. We are hoping that He will use us with groups that would ordinarily not be in the same story. We are hoping that as our families get together, as we personally ponder in our hearts (as Mary did) all the facets of the Christmas story, God will use us to do something extraordinary in the world again.
The "Glory to God in the highest [is] on earth peace among men [as in male and female humankind] with whom He is pleased" (Luke 2:14).
During this solemn season of Advent, the preparation to re-live the birth of Jesus, we have a choice: We can focus on decorations and gifts and food, some of it fun and bonding. Or we can focus on the door, once a baby, adjoining heaven and earth. We can get ready to worship God in such a way that we will be ongoing agents of reconciliation. We can long for and work for a world where different and distant groups are all a part of the same story -- His.