Matt Dickerson: Expectations and change
The Christmas season is a time of expectations. For many, Christmas morning is when those expectations are fulfilled. Or not.
Twenty-six years ago, as a newlywed, I spent my first Christmas morning with my in-laws. It was a small family gathering: myself, my wife Deborah, my parents-in-law, and my wife’s younger brother Michael. Back in 1988, Michael was still a college student. As an only son, and the only grandson on his mother’s side, he was not used to having males his age around the house on holidays. He was, however, used to receiving sporting goods from his parents for Christmas. Not only had he come to expect them, he had also come to assume that any item under the tree that looked like a piece of sporting equipment was going to be his. (Although Deborah was a good swimmer, rode horses and enjoyed most sports, competitive field and court sports were never her passion, and thus the equipment for them was not usually on her wish list.)
For several days Michael had kept his eye on what was obviously a gift-wrapped football. (There is only so much that gift-wrapping can hide, after all.) And he was quite excited about it. When we began unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, he immediately claimed the football and opened it without bothering to look at the label. Only after he had it in his hands (unwrapped) and was thanking his parents, did they realize what he had done, and they had to explain that it wasn’t for him; it was for me. He looked at the label and sure enough it read “Matthew.” His face fell and he rather begrudgingly handed it over.
Of course both Deborah and I have also had to adjust our expectations about what Christmas day would be like. Part of the adjustment was that our families had somewhat different traditions, and so most years one or the other (or both) of us had to give up some tradition. Anther part of the adjustment (mostly for her) was that my family gatherings involved a lot more people, and were louder and more overwhelming.
And becoming parents also requires a change in expectation. We move from being primarily the recipients of gifts (as children and grandchildren) to being the givers of gifts, often to those who have no means (and early on perhaps not even much thought) of reciprocating. It is not by any means a bad shift in expectations. Giving really is more blessed and delightful than receiving. But it is a shift nonetheless. Putting an expensive new fly rod or reel on my Christmas wish list would be an exercise in futility. Waiting to watch a child open some new sporting item or piece of electronics — hopefully with great delight — becomes the new expectation.
Other adjustments can be more difficult. I was given my middle name after my maternal grandfather Tom Riddle. (Yes, Harry Potter fans. I really did have a grandfather with that name.) Grandpa Riddle loved to fish and hunt, and I’m sure I inherited some of that passion from him. He died on a Christmas Day when I was 15 years old. I remember getting the phone call and having to relay the news to my mother who had taken a walk to our neighbors to pass on the day’s greetings. And about a decade later, my mother’s only sister died over the holidays, suffering a stroke just two days before Christmas that put her into a coma from which she never awoke. Though these two deaths did not remove for my mother all of the joy of Christmas, they did make the holiday more bittersweet for her and her family, partly shaping their expectations for the season.
In some ways, it is appropriate that Christmas is a time when our expectations change. The first Christmas, some 2,000 years ago, was also a time of changing expectations. It was a difficult time for Mary and Joseph, the parents of the famous newborn baby. And, indeed, it was a difficult time for their entire nation. This young Jewish couple lived among an oppressed people, under the tyrannical thumb of the Roman Empire, and with a cruel and murderous Jewish puppet king named Herod. Mary and Joseph themselves were temporarily homeless thanks to a new census imposed by the emperor in order to increase even further the oppressive tax burden. Mary had to give birth in an animal stable — probably a cave. It was not an ideal situation.
But as dire as their condition seemed, the people of Israel were not completely hopeless. Trusting in prophecies spoken 700 or more years earlier, many Jews were expecting a Messiah (or to use the Greek word, a “Christ”) who would come and rescue them from that oppression. They were expecting the Messiah-Christ to be a political or military leader who would make their nation once again free. Who would drive off the Romans and bring autonomy and peace and freedom to the Jews (as many revolts had attempted — and failed to do — in the previous many decades).
What they got instead was a helpless infant baby born to a poor homeless family. No political influence. He didn’t seem to want any. No armies. Most of his followers never even carried swords. Instead of overwhelming the Romans with a powerful military rebellion or armed insurrection, he would go on to preach a message of peace and forgiveness: God’s kingdom is not going to operate by military might; we are not going to drive out the Romans simply by having bigger swords and more soldiers; the way of the world is not my way. And for his efforts? The new puppet rulers would collude with the Roman rulers and have him executed. Talk about having to change expectations! That little baby born on that first Christmas was not quite the Messiah the people had been waiting for.
But as I wrote above, sometimes the ways our expectations have to change proves to be for the better. “Love your neighbor” is not a bad commandment. “Love your enemies,” which the manger baby would also go on to teach as an adult, is an even more exciting one. Challenging, yes. But if more people followed it, the world would be a much better place.
Also, 26 years later, I still have that football. Though it’s pretty worn out now, I still bring it to family gatherings at times. I even let Michael play with it.
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