December 28, 2011

Dashed Expectations

In the post-Christmas debrief with friends and family, a theme has emerged: dashed expectations. What happened this year?

I celebrated Christmas with my in-laws at their Roman Catholic parish. With a toddler in the family this year, we decided to try the 4pm family service. It was great to see a thriving congregation making room for people of all ages, but a bit overwhelming. Our attention was occupied by searching for seats, watching babies crawl up the aisle, and straining over the commotion to hear the way-too-long (for kids and adults!) sermon. As my mother-in-law said on the way home, “It just didn’t feel like Christmas Eve mass.”

Two friends told me about their adventure to find the best midnight mass at an Episcopal church in New York City. Due in part to confusing websites, they ended up at one only to realize it wasn’t at all what they imagined. Leaving quickly, they ended up at another Episcopal parish a few blocks away, arriving in time for communion. They aimed to try again at a different parish Christmas morning, only to realize way too late that the Sunday service schedule had changed – to 45 minutes earlier. Again they revised plans and visited their fourth congregation in the course of twelve hours. Yes, they made it to mass. But the experience was more rattling than satisfying.

Yet another group of friends attended a monastery for Christmas Eve. The usually wonderful service just didn’t hang together this year. A compelling social justice sermon, about the stark realities of Jesus’ birth under Roman rule, was undermined by sweet lilting lullabies about a baby savior. Plus, the organ (or organist?) faltered often, leaving the congregation hanging and stumbling their way through the hymns.

All these experiences have me thinking about expectations. Maybe we can look beneath our dashed hopes for deeper meaning. After all, Jesus didn’t meet expectations. He didn’t provide what people had imagined for a Messiah. He didn’t evoke the feelings they had anticipated.

My best Christmas Eve mass didn’t meet my expectations. But it transformed me. All the other Christmas Eve celebrations blend together in my memory. They may have felt right at the time, but with no lasting impact.

The one I remember took place at 7pm at my own parish. Usually spending holidays away, I was excited to finally worship at home. But I arrived and immediately thought: “Oh no, no one is here.” It felt empty, insignificant. By the time mass started maybe twenty people had assembled in the cold dark sanctuary, half of them the choir in red robes.

Warmth was provided only by the candles, some evergreen trimmings, and the loving bonds of the people gathered. The choir sat among us in the pews, soulfully singing simple Advent and Christmas hymns. The preacher stood close, coming into the middle aisle to speak directly to us.

At some point it dawned on me: this was more like the real birth of Jesus. An unpopular, intimate gathering in a stable. No fanfare. Just a small group of creatures huddled around waiting for something miraculous to appear. It did.

Then we filtered out into the streets of New York City, always sparking, yet a remarkably “silent night” for Manhattan. It was as if the world had changed, oh so slightly, because of that quiet, unexpected, birth of God-With-Us.