If we titled our holiday experiences, this Christmas season recently ended would be dubbed “Not As Planned.” Let me say right away that I am not, by nature, a planner, much to the exasperation of several previous employers. There were those who thrived on long range planning, often 5 years in advance, while others went pretty much by the seat of their pants, a mere 5 minutes in advance. My goal was somewhere in between.
Having enjoyed an extraordinary dozen days in Scotland, I returned just before Thanksgiving. Suddenly it was Advent and, astonishingly just 4 weeks later, Christmas.
I’ve been a working liturgist for close to 4 decades, so you’d imagine I’d have seen this coming. In October, I happily began serving a new worship community and it seemed to require much more of me and my time: extra rehearsals and services and a surprising amount of unfamiliar music that called for quite a bit of practicing. As December days stacked up behind me, I took to making lists, which morphed into something of a holiday spreadsheet taking on a life of its own, complete with soundtrack, lighting cues and MapQuest directives. Most of this was to prompt my rapidly fading memory. If I didn’t document the necessary tasks – buy Christmas tree, accompany pageant rehearsal, feed neighbor’s cats – there was a very good chance I’d simply forget. I could certainly celebrate the Incarnation without a tree, the show would go on (albeit quietly), but the neighbors might never forgive me.
One by one, carefully calculated windows of opportunity slammed shut. At least that was the initial feeling. Rehearsals scheduled for 2 hours stretched to 4. The tree farmer who had schlepped a few hundred Douglas firs down from Vermont every December, always saving me the smallest one, must have decided it really is better in the Bahamas and, alas, the firehouse parking lot was empty when I arrived. Oliver and Tom, the aforementioned neighboring felines, were quite perturbed at being deserted and sought revenge on the holiday décor. So while I never did decorate a tree in my own home, I did get to reconstruct the one next door!
Each of my intended yet thwarted arrangements seemed to allow for something else. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. Not as planned. And when I was paying attention, I had to admit all was well. I cheered the pint-sized pageant players, whether shining stars or stubborn sheep, bringing the tender nativity story to life once more. The empty firehouse lot did not remain a dead end, but segued into an impromptu supper with my beloved nephew just home on semester break. Cookies did not get baked. Visiting cousins only came together by phone. Festive dinners were suspended to stand with friends in sudden sorrow. And baby Jesus never made it into the manger.
On several occasions earlier in December I had chided those whose crèches already had the Christ Child front and center. “Not until Christmas,” I insisted. “And get those wise men out of there. They’re still miles away!” How sweet my childhood memory of our manger scene, sans the infant figure who would be making his way from the other end of the house, day by day, guided not by a star but my mother, bringing him room to room, blessing every space. When my sister and I would awaken to him on our bedside table, the awe was palpable. Together with my mother we would sing the familiar carol. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever and love me, I pray.” When the figure was moved to my grandmother’s room, we heard her special prayers in Hungarian and always sensed she was a bit more patient with us, even cooking some of our favorite meals. On Christmas Eve we would return from church and my mother would place baby Jesus in the stable on top of our television set. More singing: “Oh come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
This year, not as planned. While I did remember to contact friends in Pittsburgh and Manhattan on Christmas Eve morning to reveal where I had hidden their infant crèche figures, I had not managed to find my own! At least not in time for the feast. Fortunately I am a proud sponsor of all twelve days of Christmas and appreciate the true wisdom of our liturgical season. A week into Christmastide, I unearthed the box containing my cast of natal characters, somewhat tardy but happy to be home. And accompanied by leaping lords, milking maids, swimming swans and my own curious cats, the vagabond wise ones quickened their journey down the stairs, across the mantel and onto the dining room table by Epiphany afternoon.
In the Western Church, we end the Christmas season with the feast of Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan. This year, with a rather unusual application of liturgical calendaring, it occurred the day right after Epiphany Sunday. While we generally have a week between these feasts, with profound readings touching their deepest meanings, on Monday morning I couldn’t help but feel somewhat cheated. I turned to the readings of the day, some of my favorite in all scripture. Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. . .I have called you for the victory of justice. . .a light. . .to open eyes that are blind. . .to release those who sit in darkness. (from Isaiah 42) By virtue of our baptism, you and I hear the same words Jesus heard in the water: You are my beloved one. My favor rests on you. Perhaps, like me, you dozed through your baptism, so listen up now. You are my beloved one. My favor rests on you. In that moment Jesus received his identity and his work could begin. You and I received nothing less.
Just as planned.