My grandmother did not like surprises. She ordered her world through tight control. Any surprise, no matter how seemingly insignificant, could cause a seismic shift. Nobody else might feel it, but she had a seismograph heart. She was not a woman you shouted “Boo!” at. Surprises weren’t safe. (And neither were you if you threw one.)
My mother is her mother’s daughter—in more ways than one. Oh, she likes some surprises—the gifts my father buys in August and saves for December because my mom said “Oh that’s pretty” in passing and he wants to please her. But surprise parties? Or unexpected guests? Not so much.
I’m glad that neuroses are diluted through generations—or at least I hope they are. I hope they are somehow watered down in amniotic fluid. I don’t mind carrying the same strand, but I do not need the same strain. I like surprises—most of the time—not big public ones that make me nervous. I’m better than my mother, and worlds better than my grandmother, but still, in most cases, I prefer a GPS to an open road without a map.
All this to say . . .my grandmother, my mother, and I would never have been asked to give birth to the Messiah. It was one giant surprise party, but the only person who got to yell “Surprise!” was God. Everybody else was in the land of “What?”
We have heard the story so many times, we’re not surprised by it. We forget how shocking it was.
“Mary, you’re going to have a baby. Now. Before the wedding.” “What?”
“Joseph, Mary is pregnant and it’s not yours, but it’s OK. Marry her anyway.” “Huh?”
“Shepherds, your savior is born this day.” “Who, us?”
There is not a character in the story who wasn’t surprised.
All of this was shocking to the first hearers of this story, too—the audience of Luke’s Gospel. The Messiah—the Anointed One upon which an entire nation had pinned their trust—was born to a teenage girl. The Prince of Peace was born in a barn, with only animals as attendants. The heavenly birth announcement was sent not to religious leaders but to shepherds.
We’re not shocked. We’re not even surprised. We know this story. In fact, we know this story so well we’ve sanitized it. We envision this lovely scene in the barn, with lowing cattle and attentive parents. But a teenage girl had just given birth without her mother, and I’m pretty sure this scene was not all that peaceful. And “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? I doubt that. And what about the smell?
As a child and teenager I participated in live nativity scenes, especially when we lived in Miami, Florida where working in the nativity scene would not result in frostbite. We had angels on the roof of the church, to sing to the shepherds below. The magi came from the east, following a star—OK, it was a light strung on a pulley, but still….With that much attention to detail, why didn’t we have manure at the manger? We had the live animals—goats and sheep on loan from somewhere, which my dad kept between services in the church’s fenced-in playground. There was manure there, I know for a fact. But it never got anywhere near the manger. Or if it did, it didn’t stay. That statement in the story that Jesus was laid in a manger—a feeding trough—certainly implies there might have been animals around. And the shepherds who came to the manger probably had sheep dung on their shoes. We have these lovely images in our mind of the nativity story . . . everybody all clean and peaceful and happy . . . only our images have been Photoshopped.
If we’re truthful, we know they have, but still we hold onto them. “I have a hunch it’s because life is hard enough already. Do you know what I mean? Day to day, we struggle to keep pretty turbulent lives in tact, to stem the tide of chaos that too often threatens to overwhelm us at home or work or in the world at large. . . . We put a lot of time and energy into managing things, controlling as many of the variables of our lives as possible, and frankly are nearly worn out by the effort. . . . We’ve had enough ‘realism,’ thank you very much. Can’t we at least come to church for a vision of something that is inherently and undeniably good, pure, beautiful? . . . something comforting and comfortable, something, preferably, warm, cozy, and inspiring?”
It’s understandable that we want these things, especially on Christmas Eve. The problem is, that’s not the story in Luke’s Gospel. Luke starts with a reminder about the powers of the world—specifically Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire—and the ruler’s attempt to order his entire world through registering and taxing everyone within his realm. (Caesar Augustus was another person who didn’t like surprises.) But then Luke moves away from the seat of power and goes to a backwater town, a teenage girl, a smelly barn, and then to dirty shepherds, and proclaims, “Your savior is born this day.”
Why does God do this? Why not start with the seat of power and stay there? Couldn’t Jesus have had a bigger impact if he’d started with a bigger audience?
And if not, if God was going to choose to act on the margins, why start with the contrast? Why show the disparity between the powerful and the powerless? I think it’s like God was saying, “This thing that you define as power? It isn’t real. This authority? It isn’t true. This well-ordered, surprise-free existence? It isn’t worth living. Instead you have to come to the manger. Instead you have to get a little dirty. Instead you have to let yourself be surprised, even if it disrupts your carefully ordered world.
You see, the only problem with photoshopped images of the nativity is that if it’s perfect, we might think we don’t belong there. We need to know that we are welcome, with all our faults and failings, with stains on our clothes and voices strained from yelling at the kids, with the metaphorical manure we stepped in recently still clinging to our shoes. God is calling us—God is calling you—to the manger tonight. It’s not always peaceful, and sometimes it’s downright smelly. But miracles happen there. Surprises are born there. God is still entrusting salvation to those not yet old enough to drive. God is still coming to us in ways we can’t imagine and in places we’d rather not be seen. God is still announcing the coming of Christ to the lowly just doing their jobs. God is calling you to the manger tonight, for a surprise party extraordinaire. Don’t worry about how you’re dressed. It’s a come-as-you-are party.
 Lose, David. “Something More.” workingpreacher.org. 12-18-11.