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Soon the chills of fall will give way to the cold of winter. Layers of super white will cover over the brilliant colors of harvest. Even as we await Halloween, and Thanksgiving Day, we know our annual patterns too well to not see what’s on the horizon.

Christmas is coming, bringing in its run-up a season so beloved, so seemingly magical, so sentimental, and in one sense so well known—that is, until 2020. Christmas we know, but in a global pandemic?

How much will the ghosts of our Christmases past haunt this one? What will your expectations be for this otherwise most wonderful time of the year?

Christmas from a Distance

Each new day brings unexpected challenges, and many of us find some stability and comfort in the well-known rhythms of the changing seasons. When life is at its most unpredictable and uncertain, we enjoy a measure of security as the snow thaws in spring, as the sun shines its hottest in summer, as the leaves change and fall, and as the snow flies again. 

But Christmas 2020 will not be what many of us have grown to expect our whole lives. For decades we’ve been conditioned to expect certain, often unspoken givens each holiday season. Some expectations may be extravagant, but many are modest—and how many of them, until now, have required social proximity?

At the heart of our Christmases, our whole life long, has been relational nearness—friends and family, face to face. God himself came near that first Christmas. Isaiah prophesied that we would “call his name Immanuel,” meaning God with us. How could we mark Christmas—the greatest breach of social distancing of all time, when God himself came face to face with us—by keeping our distance from each other?

Uncertain, Unexpected

For those of us who have been spared the traumas of war and other tragedies, Christmas 2020 will be the most unusual Christmas we’ve experienced. It will not be what we have come to expect each December.

However, it’s no small comfort to remember how unexpected that first Christmas was to begin with, and how at the heart of Christmas isn’t God accommodating himself to our expectations and comforts, but our learning to come awake to his ways and thoughts that are higher than ours. Maybe this Christmas, and this Advent—the season of waiting leading up to it—will be our chance, long overdue, to consider afresh how unexpected that first Christmas was. Perhaps this year the tenor of Christmas 2020 will be more in tune with the surprising twists and turns of the first Christmas rather than the ideals of our own Christmas pasts.

Perhaps this year the tenor of Christmas 2020 will be more in tune with the surprising twists and turns of the first Christmas rather than the ideals of our own Christmas pasts.

Remember how long God’s faithful remnant had waited. It had been a millennium since the great king, David, and God’s promise to raise up a ruler in his own line who would establish his throne forever. It had been seven centuries since Isaiah prophesied of Immanuel, and a virgin with child, and a son given with the government on his shoulders, and his name called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 7:14; 9:6). Even after Malachi and the closing of the Hebrew canon, God’s people had waited another 400 years. No one expected such divine forbearance. No one thought it would be so many centuries of waiting after this Messiah has been promised.

Nazareth to Bethlehem

Then, as God took the initiative to move the first pieces, none would have guessed Nazareth. Nazareth? Few outside of Israel had ever heard the name, much less expected anything good to come from such an obscure backwater. Galilee was strange enough, so far downstream from Jerusalem—but Nazareth?

And to an unwed woman, after all. Isaiah’s prophecy notwithstanding, virgins don’t have children. The ancients knew this every bit as well as we do today. And what of God moving literally the whole “known world” of the time, with a decree from Caesar Augustus, to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to David’s town at precisely the time she would give birth, to fulfill Micah’s prophecy (Micah 5:2)?

None would have expected that upon their arrival, there would be “no place” for the mother and her holy child who would be “laid in a manger” (Luke 2:7). This is David’s heir! How would there be “no room” when we might expect a palace? And when we would expect wealthy parents, how could he be born to a couple poor enough to offer the two turtledove provision (Lev. 12:8) for those unable to afford a lamb (Luke 2:24)?

Would such a child, so long expected, not soon be surrounded by the nation’s greatest dignitaries? Instead, the angel visits blue-collar shepherds and directs them to the manger. And in due course, and one of the most bizarre details of all, magi—pagan astrologers—traverse far to visit the child that the Jerusalem religious elite will not even come down five short miles to Bethlehem to see.

Pierce Your Own Soul

How upside-down has God turned our expectations when the Messiah’s family must flee Judah to Egypt? God’s people had emerged from the womb of Egyptian slavery. Out of Egypt God had called his son—and now he calls his Son to Egypt to escape a monstrous tyrant every bit as demonic as the ancient pharaohs who didn’t know Joseph.

Finally came those piercing words from an old man named Simeon in the temple. Such a passing reference, on the one hand, so easy to overlook, then yet so haunting. No only had Messiah come, not only had God himself been born as man, as they would later discover, but he came to embrace the most unexpected event of all: death, even death on a cross.

Simeon had looked Mary in the eye and said, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed . . . so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed”—with this earth-shattering parenthesis: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34–35). Your own soul also. “I will be pierced?” she would have asked. “Wait, he will be pierced?”

First Real Christmas

It can be all too easy to become all too familiar with the world-changing force of that first Christmas—a force that didn’t come according to human expectations. Perhaps we’ve been rocked to sleep by our annual routines and December’s strange mixture of the church’s story and the world’s celebration. But now Christmas 2020 will be different. Or will it?

Maybe the very thing that would best reintroduce us to what Christmas really means is to have a Christmas that doesn’t fall easily into what we’ve come to expect.

This unexpected Christmas of 2020, and its Advent prelude, gives us more reason to be hopeful than disillusioned. Maybe the very thing that would best reintroduce us to what Christmas really means is to have a Christmas that doesn’t fall easily into what we’ve come to expect. Perhaps this year God means to liberate “your Christmas” from years of accumulated baggage, from the December hustle and bustle to a lifetime’s nostalgia and expectations too high to fulfill, and running in all the wrong directions besides.

Perhaps this year the tenor of our Christmas would be more in tune with the surprising twists and turns of the first Christmas rather than adjusted to the ideals of our own Christmas pasts. We can pray for it. And begin recalibrating our hearts and hopes, even now, as we’ve had to do with so many good things this year. It would be just like the real Christmas to shine all out all the more brightly in the darkness of these days.

Editors’ note: 

See the new devotional, The Christmas We Didn’t Expect, by David Mathis (The Good Book Co.).