Anticipation. You may remember the old ketchup commercial where Carly Simon sings the song “Anticipation” while the ketchup slowly hangs in midair. Anticipation should be a joyful feeling, not the feeling of anxiety and dread. But the feelings are similar in that whatever we expect, whether good or bad, is often surprising.
One of my favorite jokes illustrates the connection between anticipation and surprise. Back in the wild West, a stranger stands at a saloon bar. Suddenly a cowboy runs in screaming, “Hey, everybody, Big Bad John is coming to town.” Several others exclaim: “Big Bad John is the meanest, toughest, biggest outlaw in the West. Let’s run for it.” Everyone heads for the door except the stranger and the bartender. The bartender says, “Are you deaf, mister? Big Bad John is coming!” The stranger replies, “I don’t know who he is, but he can’t be all that big and bad. I’m not afraid.” So the stranger and the bartender wait. Soon the saloon doors fly off their hinges, and a mountain of a man stomps through the door. Covered with scars and sporting a scowl, he demands a drink. The bartender meekly complies. The stranger nervously thinks to himself, “Now I wish I had run away; this guy is the biggest, meanest-looking outlaw I’ve ever seen.” The outlaw downs the drink in one gulp, slams it down on the bar, then turns and looks the stranger coldly in the eye to announce, “I don’t know about you, stranger, but I’m gettin’ outta here. I don’t wanna be here when Big Bad John comes in!”
Anticipation is usually followed with surprise! Most jokes have that same structure: anticipation, then surprise. We know something is coming but then it was not what we expected. There is something delightful about the formula. Children know it. That’s why they love opening Christmas presents. They must look at those wrapped gifts for weeks of suspense, and only on Christmas morning do they receive the surprise.
If only we adults could reclaim some of the anticipation and surprise, the excitement and wonder, of a child’s Christmas . . . or of the very first Christmas. Admittedly, we know what is coming. We feel no anticipation about the coming of Christ; Christmas for some people is just another holiday, that same old time of year where we fight our way through stores, unpack our ornaments, and eat too much.
So we must work at it if we wish to reclaim the excitement of Advent. Paradoxically, one must prepare to be surprised. Pause for a moment and consider the hope, anticipation, and surprise of that first Christmas.
Consider Jewish history. From the days of Samuel, the event was predicted by the prophets and anticipated by the people. King David sang about the coming of the Messiah in the psalms; Isaiah wrote poetry about a Savior, a Prince of Peace; Jeremiah preached in the streets about the “righteous Branch,” which would “sprout from David’s line” (Jeremiah 31:15). The Israelites had been waiting centuries for a powerful liberator, redeemer, and healer. They anticipated—they prepared for—a great sign from God.
That sign came first to Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth was to be the mother of John the Baptist, who in turn would prepare the way for Christ. She was a faithful Jew, and she anticipated the coming of a Savior. Thus, when Zechariah told her she would have a baby—despite that she had been barren for years—she didn’t doubt him. It was a surprise, and yet it had been anticipated. It was something wondrous and unexpected, and yet she was prepared. Elizabeth had anticipated something miraculous, just as the prophets had said.
This is true of the other characters in the Christmas story: Joseph, Mary, Simeon, the shepherds, and the magi. They all had made preparations, albeit with some angelic prodding, and thus, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, they were surprised yet prepared. The cast of the first Christmas drama had this in common: they all had anticipated the unexpected; they had hoped for the miraculous and by faith they had prepared. By the time John the Baptist cried out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” it was a family tradition!
So I’m asking you in this Advent season to shift your perspective. Don’t view Christmas as a mundane or repetitious holiday. Don’t expect the “same old, same old.” Don’t rule out the miraculous and the startling; prepare your mind for the serendipitous joy of new insights, liberation, and the fulfillment of hope. Prepare to be surprised.
We should move toward Christmas with wide eyes and an open heart, but too many of us face it with dread. Some folk still view Christmas as a chore—like the woman who had waited until the last minute to send Christmas cards. She rushed into a store and hurriedly bought a package of fifty Christmas cards without giving them a second look. In a panic to beat the post office closing, she addressed forty-nine of the fifty and signed them, never stopping to actually read the preprinted message inside. On Christmas Day, when things had quieted down, she chanced upon the leftover card and finally read the message that she had sent to forty-nine of her friends. Much to her dismay, it read: “This card is just to say, a big gift is on the way!” Suddenly she realized that forty-nine of her friends were anticipating a big gift from her–a gift that would never come!
A big gift is indeed on its way to you–the biggest and best in all human history. The gift of Christ at Christmas has come, and will come again. Anticipate that gift. Prepare for it. Don’t let it get buried underneath the packages and tree trimmings. Don’t walk past the eternal, oblivious in your worries of the temporal. Open your eyes. Watch for the signs. Bare and prepare your heart. The miracle is coming!