This is the reflection I shared at our monthly dog-friendly outdoor vespers service this Saturday. The accompanying text was Luke 2:1-7.
I like to be prepared. This is generally true for me, but especially around the holidays. I would love to be able to immerse myself fully in the Advent mood of watching, waiting, repenting, reflecting, and generally just making room in my heart so that the wonder of the Christ child’s birth can enter it fully, when at last he comes. But in order to be ready for getting ready, that means that I need to get everything else done well before Christmas! You all know what my to-do list looks like—you surely have its twin: baking, cleaning, cards, gifts, wrapping, and so on.
Just so you know, I was well on-track this year. I had started on the Christmas presents back in November, I had my baking neatly scheduled, I’d bought my Advent calendar and fresh candles for the wreath. I was ready to immerse myself in some prayerful, soul-searching getting-ready.
That is, until day 3, when my dog ate the Advent calendar, ripping through two layers of cardboard to get at the 21 remaining tiny squares of milk chocolate. Don’t worry: as you can see, he’s totally fine. Like Billy Joel says, only the good die young.
I couldn’t help but think, as I cleaned up the litter of brightly-colored cardboard from my living room floor, at this only goes to show that the only thing you can ever really expect, especially in the matter of the coming of Christ, is the unexpected.
Mary, mother of God, would surely have agreed. Can you imagine how she felt during that first Christmas? First an angel appears from her and invites her to bear God’s child—a plan that will change this nice young girl from a good family into a pregnant teenage unwed mother. Mary takes a deep breath and says “yes.” Then she gets the news that she and Joseph are going to have to trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant. Surely Mary did everything she could: packed the diaper bag, took extra prenatal vitamins, hitched the stroller to the donkey’s back—but then the couple arrives in Bethlehem, and they forgot to make a reservation. And there’s no room at the inn. So much for all that preparation.
So the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace was welcomed into the world not by adoring nations on bended knee, but by donkeys, goats, maybe a dog or a cat, who wondered what on earth this wailing creature was doing in their food bowl.
There’s an old Christmas legend that animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve—and not only that they can talk, but that they can prophesy. I was thinking about that this week when I was working with the texts for the sermon I’ll be preaching tomorrow. They include a reading from Isaiah that talks about the lion lying down with the lamb, and about how carnivores will eat straw and grass, so that no animal fears for its life. Whether or not you believe in legends about talking creatures, the Bible clearly tells us that animals, the same animals who witnessed the Messiah’s birth, will witness to his coming by showing us what the peace he will bring looks like.
Barnaby, in being his exuberant, chocolate-loving self this week, helped speak an Advent truth into my frenetic preparation: the coming of God is at its heart something unexpected and mysterious, something that defies all our preparations and bursts into our lives and changes everything, and really, the only thing I get any measure of control over is whether I react with joy or dismay when things go inevitably as I do not expect.
Barnaby’s eating of the Advent calendar leaves me with two questions this week, which I hope we can contemplate together:
1) Are our hearts prepared to be joyful, even in the midst of the unexpected?
2) Is our chocolate on a high enough shelf?