There will certainly be no shortage of ways to describe this year, I can immediately think of a few colourful expletives for an accurate description myself. However, slightly more acceptable is the term we often hear being used by news reporters, politicians and leaders to somehow put words to this year of global pandemics, racial and political unrest, social polarisation and economic uncertainty - this is ‘unprecedented’.
It has indeed been a year of the unexpected.
The truth is, the one thing we can be sure of in this life (apart from death and taxes), is moments of the unexpected.
Some of these moments come out of the blue, like a quick trip to the doctors that turns into a more serious diagnosis, life will never again be the same; a joyous moment of tree climbing with a child turns to tragedy as they take a fall, will they ever walk again?; the scheduled work meeting that turns into your redundancy….the list goes on, the pandemic that began in far-off Asia, someone else’s problem, is now our reality, as many of our relatives and loved ones fights for their lives in intensive care units.
Sometimes the unexpected creeps in slowly. The reality of the life-long desire we might have had for a family wasn't supposed to be this hard; our spouse wasn’t supposed to suffer this way; our kids were supposed to follow God through their teenage years. What happened? This was not how I expected life to happen; maybe your retirement wasn’t supposed to be spent alone, or your grown up kids weren’t supposed to move across the world.
Fill in the blanks for your own story.
If the birth of Jesus tells us anything, it’s a reminder to allow for the unexpected.
Depending on your Christian tradition, there is the belief that the years between the OT and NT were the silent years in terms of prophecy. Much unrest, war and occupation occurred in Israel (as documented in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon), yet the people of Israel didn’t hear from God through the prophets…..
Until the voice of one calling in the wilderness……
Scripture and the overarching larger story of God is filled to bursting with the unexpected. The announcement of the birth of John the Baptiser itself was a bit of a shock for the childless, elderly couple Zechariah and Elizabeth. Angel visitations seemed to be God’s preferred method at this time. They had one that changed everything, as did Elizabeth’s relative, the teenage Mary. That’s going to be a little disruptive to your plans, you know the ones about a nice retirement or for Mary, your fiancé and future and stuff.
But as my friend says “God reserves the right to interrupt your life”.
The ‘suddenly’ moments can throw us totally off-kilter and its important to note that all of life’s interruptions are not of God. For those moments that are however, I hope that my prayer in such circumstances can echo that of the young Mary who responds to the angel with “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Then there’s a few scruffy shepherds out for the night. I think this would have been my job in 1st century Palestine, though perhaps my visions of campfires under the stars and some witty banter over a wee dram with the boys is a little far-fetched. Anyway, they get the full-on ‘suddenly’ angel visitation, and when the angel finishes the message more of them turn up and start singing. That would be something to remember.
Let’s pause a moment to acknowledge the ordinariness of the people we’ve mentioned….a priest and his wife, a teenage girl and her carpenter fiancé and some shepherds. These are everyday people. The heavenly chorus didn’t appear to kings and nobility, these are blue-collar outdoorsman who probably don’t smell too fresh. God is making it known to them and others who will believe because of their testimony, that the Kingdom is available to anyone and everyone; the Kingdom arrives with glorious shouts of praise and wonder, as well as the quiet, delicate vulnerability of youth holding a new-born. The Word becoming flesh is the awakening of divinity being manifest in the everyday - all the wonder, dirt, poo, breast-feeding, doubt and fear of these moments - it brings light and life to all, not just the selected and privileged few, and not just in the ‘sacred’ places. The incarnation, the unexpected and the availability of the Kingdom proclaim the sacredness and holiness of ALL things.
Then, a shifting paradigm enters the story. Not everything unexpected comes with a sudden wallop. There are a few fellas from the East who have been watching the stars. They are astrologers, philosophers, thinkers. They’ve noticed changes, something new in their observations. Could this relate to the old prophecies? It leads them on a journey to a distant land, curious explorers on a quest of discovery. They find a jealous king and fall into another story they want little to do with. They continue to follow the sign. Expecting the unexpected, these men of influence and wisdom find themselves giving gifts of the wealthy to a child in a cave.
‘Suddenly’ returns to the story as Joseph is told to “Go!”, the boy is marked to be killed as rage and anger burns in the king. They must flee to Egypt. The King of Glory, Bright Morning Star begins life as a refugee. This was not in the plan, but not much has been since Mary said yes to God. Such is the dynamic nature of the narrow way.
And so the Gospels continue in this vain. The Larger Story always does. Unexpected encounters. Eyes and ears opened, hearts awakened. The child from our story, who matures into a fine craftsman, a servant leader and the best teacher who ever lived, calls an unexpected group of ragamuffins to follow him and together they change the world.
The question arises for us about how we respond to the unexpected. In fact, we’ve had a lot of practice this year. How did you respond? Was it fear, worry or doubt? Did you fall into passivity? Or were you reactionary and want to solve the problem? Did you roll with the punches, fight or flee? Did this year draw you closer to Jesus or did the other ‘voices’ gain supremacy in your mind and heart?
This season of Advent reminds us of the essence of the Kingdom of God - hope, peace, joy and love. Each week we concentrate on one of these but they are supposed to build and form the foundations, to intricately weave together as part of our lives. We can only discover hope if we have the confident expectation in the goodness of God; we can have peace when we experience the mission of Shalom in the Incarnation; we find joy when we finally realise that Jesus’ burden is ‘free and light’ and we cast our worries onto him; and we love because he first loved us. These things are almost impossible to articulate, they’re better experienced. This is why Jesus asked some fishermen to follow him before he explained why and the road ahead; this is why the angel called Mary ‘Blessed One’ before she had to leave her land as a refugee; and this is why we’re called to trust and love Jesus in readiness for the unexpected.