My favourite children’s Christmas story is Jesus’ Christmas Party, by Nicholas Allan, written from the perspective of the innkeeper. Having kindly offered Mary and Joseph space at the rear of his inn, the innkeeper headed off to bed.
But all through the night people kept knocking on his door, asking about a new baby. Every time his sleep was disturbed, the innkeeper directed people round the back. However, with each interruption his irritation grew—as did the volume of his response. Near the end of the story, the innkeeper can be heard yelling, ‘Round the Back!’ at his unsuspecting Christmas visitors.
The innkeeper went to bed on Christmas Eve expecting a good night’s sleep. His expectations were not met! Christmas continues to come to us wrapped in multiple layers of expectation. We want this season to be one of gratitude and celebration; we long for Christmas Day to be calmer and happier than is realistic! We hope for peace and goodwill. But life doesn’t always match the perfect world projected by the peddlers of Christmas dreams. Under the glare of Christmas lights and the intensity of Christmas demands, those dreams can disintegrate around us. Many of us are left with acute feelings of disappointment, loneliness, sadness and resentment. Somehow our heightened expectations seem to enlarge the gap between the fantasy of a perfect Christmas and the reality of our actual experience. We may feel like we are the ones sitting round the back of everyone else’s merry and bright Christmas celebrations.
I suspect that first Christmas didn’t quite happen as Mary and Joseph expected either. Mary probably hoped for a quiet birth in her hometown, surrounded by familiar maternal figures. I doubt she would have chosen to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem so close to her due date. She would never have expected her joy over the birth of Jesus to be replaced with the terror of death threats against him from King Herod. Nor would she have anticipated how Herod’s paranoia would force her little family to flee as refugees to Egypt. I am sure Mary’s experience of her very first Christmas would have felt like living round the back of the life she had hoped for.
The expectations society places on the Christmas season are so incredibly powerful because they capture the deepest hopes and longings of our hearts. We want to feel joy; we crave the comfort of meaningful human connection; we need hope to sustain us; we long for faith to act as the antidote to our deepest fears; we want our hearts to be at peace.
Yet, for so many of us, this Christmas will not satisfy these deep heart-felt longings. And no matter how much we try to will ourselves into the spirit of the season, no matter how much we try to project a picture-perfect image of our lives to others (and even to ourselves), our reality falls far short of our annual Christmas expectations. If we dare to face our reality, we may be confronted with the difficult truth that our joy is fading, our hope is stretched thin, our faith is fragile and peace has not yet settled over our hearts. This is particularly challenging for those of us who are professional dispensers of joy, hope, faith and peace. It’s deeply disturbing to discover that even our own sermons feel like another empty Christmas promise!
I don’t know about you, but when I find myself round the back at Christmas, I just want to escape from that sense of isolation and angry disappointment. I want to run away from my inner pain. And if running doesn’t work, then I’ll usually try to stuff those feelings down with potato chips or chocolate! It’s easier to numb our pain, right? Anything to drown out the reality of being round the back. Yet the more we avoid our reality, the further round the back we seem to end up.
So I started to think about how to change that experience. I suspect transformation begins the moment we can acknowledge reality; the moment we accept the things we cannot change. Rather than avoiding reality we need to take the time to step into it. Even if that space round the back is uncomfortable or unwelcome. We need to sit with, and process, all of our uncomfortable and unwelcome feelings. Yet we don’t need to do this alone. Because Jesus is round the back—waiting for us! Author Richard Rohr is adamant: Jesus always goes to where the pain is. Jesus longs for us to bring our pain to him at the manger. Christmas is God’s invitation to stop running and hand our reality over to the Christ child. That’s when we discover this baby has many names, including Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’. Discovering God with us round the back invariably changes our hearts, even when our circumstances remain challenging.
Even the grumpy innkeeper stumbled upon this truth. Woken by one too many cheerful Christmas visitors, he was ready to unleash all his ‘I hate Christmas’ angst on the gathered throng. Instead, having stomped his way round the back he came face to face with Jesus—God with him, right there, ready to receive all his resentment and rage. Sharing sacred space with Jesus melted his heart. The encounter with Jesus didn’t change his situation, but it did change him!
This year let’s put aside unrealistic Christmas expectations. Instead, let’s join Jesus round the back. I can’t promise the encounter will change our circumstances. However, I can promise that as we sit quietly with the Christ child, our hearts will be changed. Because grasping the reality of God With Us brings comfort. Grasping the reality of God With Us helps us adjust our expectations. And grasping the reality of God With Us brings serenity, especially when reality doesn’t meet our expectations at Christmas.