Are you ready for Christmas? Of course not. No one’s ever ready for Christmas. When I’ve met the rare person who claims readiness, I figure she’s overly optimistic, or that her standards are simply lower than mine. She must settle for sticky-back, store-bought bows, I reassure myself.
Seventeen years of annual Christmas preparations and I’m still not ready. This year I’m less prepared than usual. This is the year my mom died, fourteen months after my dad’s death. This Christmas I find myself trying to stuff my home with memory-making spirit, while I air out, and “neutralize” my parents’ home, making it more attractive to prospective buyers. I’m decorating one home while I sort, divide and discard contents of another. It’s a fairly unbalanced approach to ushering in the holidays. Consequently, I am not ready for Christmas.
In an early morning reading of the Christmas story, I discovered I’m in good company. No one was ready for the first Christmas either.
Take Zechariah, a man of faith, a wise old priest; he had been so disappointed by his wife’s childlessness that he refused to believe the good news of her pregnancy when Gabriel pronounced it. His faith in the impossible God was tested that first Christmas. He wasn’t ready.
Joseph wasn’t ready. He was a righteous man disgraced when Mary told him she was pregnant. Knowing he wasn’t the father, nonetheless he was asked to trust her, and trust God that her words and his dream were true. His reputation was on the line—was he a fool? Or could he be the earthly father of a holy child? He couldn’t have been ready.
The shepherds in the fields had to be inconvenienced by Christmas. They were busy protecting their sheep. It was dirty and disreputable work, but it was a job. And even if they could get away from their work (who was going to watch the sheep?), they were a mess. Shepherds were a smelly bunch. They weren’t welcomed in most towns; certainly not in a town as busy as Bethlehem was that night. Christmas came at a bad time for the shepherds.
How about the innkeeper? Of all the Christmas characters, I think the innkeeper gets the worst rap. But actually, the “innkeeper” isn’t even mentioned in the Gospel account. The word “inn” translates better to “guest room,” and is the same word used to describe the upper room of the last supper. The innkeeper was likely a distant relative of Joseph’s, opening the door to in-law pilgrims traveling because of census mandates. Completely booked, this relative offered the holy family a stable for the night. That’s quite generous given the circumstances. (If God had wanted the executive suite, he should have made arrangements. He is God after all.) Bethlehem was swamped with travelers, and this host was simply tapped out. He was over-committed. His plate was full. He didn’t ask for the census or its repercussions. He wasn’t ready for a baby’s birth in his home.
The magi weren’t prepared. Most theologians think the magi were part astronomers-part astrologers. They studied the heavens and interpreted the stars’ portent. Imagine them discovering a new star. After years of studying charts, constellations and seasonal skies, what were they to do with a new star? Their science couldn’t reconcile such an event. I’m certain the magi never expected God to part the night skies and place a latecomer star over Bethlehem.
Thinking on this cast of characters, I realized that none of us is ready for Christmas—ever. Like Zechariah, we’re too wounded by past disappointment to believe. Or like Joseph, we’re unsure whether we can stake our reputation to trust in God. Like the shepherds, we’ve got responsibilities to our own lambs. Besides, we’re not cleaned up enough for the presence of God.
These days, our lives are a lot like the innkeeper. We’re well meaning, but we’re stretched too thin. We’re not ready for a big-time commitment to God. Or like the magi, we’re struggling to make science explain faith. It’s hard to believe in something that we can’t touch. Surely, we can’t come to the cradle with doubt.
I’m really not ready. Which is just when I realized it: Christmas doesn’t come because we’re ready. Disappointed, unsure, inconvenienced, over-committed and, frankly, at a loss when logic won’t explain why. We’ll never be ready in time.
And God knows that. Jesus wasn’t born to a self-sufficient, cleaned-up, organized, and intellectual bunch as the CEO King. He came to us as savior, which is exactly what the name Jesus means.
Christmas doesn’t come because we’re ready. It comes—rather, He comes because we’re needy. That is the supremely good news, the essential element and the gift of Christmas to all who would receive it. Ready or not.