Prepare to Be Surprised
So here we are not just in the fourth week of Advent, but are officially staring Christmas straight on.
This, this is a real surprise to me.
I do not know where December, let alone Advent, went.
It was just here.
I just saw it.
As a sign of how this last month of work productivity has gone, this is now the sixth time I’ve begun this blog.
That means, therefore, that that opening line has been changed now six times, from the initial “So now we are beginning Advent,” to “So now we are in the first week of Advent,” to “…in the second week of Advent” to “..in the third week of Advent,” to “…in the fourth week of Advent,” to “…staring Christmas straight on.”
Seems perfectly on point for the season of waiting: I’ve been waiting for time to write it, and perhaps waiting for a little inspiration too.
We are, of course, at the end of A Year, the better part of which has been a year of waiting.
We’ve been waiting for the election, waiting for the certification of the election, waiting for Covid to pass, waiting for the quarantine to be over, waiting for the vaccine to arrive, waiting for in-school classes to resume, waiting for families and friends and lovers to finally gather, to feast, to laugh, to sing, to hug, to kiss, and perhaps most of all, we’ve been waiting for 2020 to be in our rear-view mirror.
In my little family, we’ve been waiting since early November for my father’s apartment to be repaired, and then consequently for him to be repaired too! (He’s fine now, and both matters have been good reasons to have him stay with us for these last two months!)
For those Christians who follow a liturgical calendar, we’ve also been waiting, of course, in these days, for the birth of Jesus.
Advent is not our tradition’s long, strong suit.
I do realize that I have a reputation for being a bit…persnickety about Advent.
I like my Advent with a healthy dose of waiting.
The irony of having a season designated to wait, to prepare (Isaiah’s and John the Baptist’s words, not mine), over which we skip—sometimes even before it begins—because we can’t wait…it boggles me every year.
That said, I recognize that some people, even those who are of a liturgical tradition, might find the anticipatory nature of Advent…performative.
And I realize that there is some legit reason for that.
Like, we all know what’s coming anyway.
It isn’t as if anyone needs to be sitting down for the news that tomorrow, it’s Christmas—except for those of us who are way way behind in absolutely everything related to Christmas (*begins to multi-task furiously while writing*).
This is no cliffhanger.
We know about the angel and Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph (appearing in the story a bit like an extra but still we need the guy) and the census and the manger and the birth and the angels and even though we stick the Wise Men in the scene way before they were there we sort of know something about them too.
So I understand, given that we know the story, given that we know what’s going to happen, that a case can be made to ask the question: What are we waiting for?
Why go through the motions if there’s nothing new to expect, if we know what’s coming anyway?
Jesus will be born.
We know that.
We do this every year.
No popcorn needed for this show.
What is the point of waiting, then, or pretending to wait, if we already know what’s going to come down the liturgical pike?
However, this season, I’ve been given reason to wonder whether we really do know what is coming.
I’ve been given reason to wonder whether it’s possible that we have come to comfortably, blithely believe we have anticipated absolutely everything.
Everything, that is, except quite possibly the capacity, the possibility, of being knocked flat-on-our-kiesters surprised.
The thing about surprise, right, is that it comes precisely when we aren’t anticipating it.
It breaks into the rote of it all, it busts into our lives even when, in fact, we aren’t ready for it, let alone thinking of it.
If we were anticipating surprise, if we were to be ready for it, if we were thinking of its advent, whatever the surprise would be would be many things excepting, above all, a surprise.
But when a surprise hits, precisely because of its surprise-ness, everything is transformed.
In fact, in the very advent of surprise, you begin to notice transformation of the things or ways or parts of life that you didn’t even notice needed transformation.
In fact, when you are surprised, you might even discover things or ways or parts of life that you hadn’t even noticed before at all.
That, I wonder, is what Advent readies us for: for the possibility of being surprised in a world where we are left, as often as not, underwhelmed, or overwhelmed, but rarely surprised.
I‘ve had reason to mull such things recently, because for the first time in a very long time, I’ve found myself quite surprised.
A spell back, an email landed in my box from a man whom I, as a girl, once knew as a boy, in the land of Way Back.
Since I opened up my inbox that morning, my attention has been called to consider that somewhere along the way, the habit, the mindfulness, in fact the imagination to be flat-out surprised had been forgotten.
I had come to anticipate what I thought I already could expect, for I knew what was coming.
No popcorn necessary.
No surprises to anticipate.
But now, even I am reaching for the popcorn every day, while I simultaneously reach for the text and the message and the phone call and the video chat.
I don’t even like popcorn that very much.
Also, that little surprise situation is probably where all of December/Advent up and went, now that I think on it.
And given how fiercely I love my Advent, I’m actually surprisingly very ok with that.
Beaming all day every day long, actually.
I’m not entirely sure that John the Baptist would be down with it…he doesn’t seem quite the Hallmark movie kind of guy.
But something tells me Jesus would probably understand.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.
At one level, that surprises the heck out of me, true.
But at another, I am now in a new mindset, one of settling in to be open to being newly surprised, not least of all by this story we know by heart, this tale of a mother who was minding her ordinary matters when suddenly, she was surprised by news of a child within her; this story of shepherds going about their ordinary nightly tasks, when suddenly they were surprised by an array of angels announcing Good News; this account of rulers quite content with the The Way Things Are, who were suddenly surprised by the transformative challenge of love, grace, kindness, holy indignation, and freedom redefined; and a world over 2,000 years ago surprised by hope.
It is quite possible that few to none of these people, not a one, were consciously waiting for a surprise of any sort to come to pass, at least in that vey moment.
In fact, just in Luke 2 alone, the word “amaze” is to be found three times: All those whom the shepherds told about what they had seen were “amazed,” and Mary and Joseph were “amazed” by Simeon’s song of praise, and then, when Jesus was 12, he “amazed” those who heard this young boy engage in teaching and learning at the temple.
Every one of them was transformed by the advent of surprise.
Their lives changed because they were open to being amazed, and being drawn into that very amazement.
And maybe that’s the point of Advent, right?
To invite us into being prepared to be amazed.
See maybe, maybe on this waning last day of Advent, maybe we could stop, even for a moment, and consider whether there is even a smidgen of possibility of surprise that could break through our mundane.
Could it be that the familiar is more unfamiliar than we might recognize?
Might it be possible that exactly when we think we know what of course will come to pass, because it has been that way forever, that perhaps, just perhaps, wonder, and mystery, and revelation, and love, will take us by surprise?
And could it be that if we can prepare ourselves to be in a posture ready for amazement, that perhaps we will see, and hear, and, in fact, actually be anew?
Perhaps, on this last day of Advent and this Christmas Eve eve, we can linger here: this nexus of waiting and arrival, this pivot night of hope yearned for and hope attained, this crux of the ordinary and the majestic.
Maybe unbeknownst to us, maybe in our regular day-to-day lives, maybe we are always at this nexus, this pivot point, this crux, but maybe we aren’t well-prepared to recognize that we are on the very cusp of the possibility of transformational joy.
The reign of God is always at the ready to break through: the question, as John the Baptist asks us, whether we are prepared for it.
So maybe that’s part of the gift that both Advent and Christmas Eve offer us: a reminder that there is the ordinary, but that at any time, really, perhaps, when you least expect it, the extraordinary can and does enter in.
And maybe, maybe if we are prepared for that, maybe if Advent is not about a month of pro-forma rituals that have lost meaning (or their meaning has been lost), but rather is about inviting a life of readiness to be amazed as a very way of being, maybe then we see that the ordinary isn’t so ordinary after all.
Maybe the ordinary is simply and constantly pregnant with surprise yet to break in and break forth in the world.
Maybe that’s what preparing is about.
Maybe that’s what waiting is about.
Maybe both are about noticing the Now, and simultaneously readying for the quite possibly surprising in-breaking of God’s Next.
In one we see the possibility of surprise, and in the other, the possibility of transformation.
The old can become new, the ordinary can become miraculous, the impossible can be attainable, and the expected can be jolted by joyous surprise.
A blessed Christmas to you all, from my family and me to you!
Thank you for this post. It was well-timed and well-received.