When I was in between my final two years of university, a lovely Korean student named Sunyoung sublet one of the rooms in our creaky old student rental house. Sunyoung was taking a summer English-language immersion program at Queen’s, and she embraced the program’s directive to practice English outside of the classroom with great enthusiasm.
We, her fellow housemates, were happy to help her grow her vocabulary and her conversational skills, and one day Sunyoung decided she would bake us cookies as a thank-you. I can still picture her as she placed the pan into the oven, closed the door, whirled gleefully around to us, and exclaimed, “EXPECT THESE COOKIES!!” We couldn’t help but laugh, and her eyes widened. “Is that not what to say? How do I say?”
Well. This was actually an interesting question. Sunyoung felt encouraged by the fact that the three of us native-English-speakers at the dining table were furrowing our brows as we realized that we didn’t actually have a handy, simple, imperative verb to say, “There’s a good thing coming; I’m telling you about it, and you should be looking forward to it.”
Sunyoung had inadvertently coined a phrase that filled a genuine gap in the language. (We congratulated her on this, and she was immensely proud of herself.)
Advent is a season where we would be able to put such a phrase to very good use. The hymn “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” is on the rotation in many a worship service. Mary, of course, is Expecting. And there are others in the broader Christmas story – what might they also be expecting in these final few days before Mary’s expectation is delivered into the world? Granted, December 25 is not Jesus’ actual date of birth, but it can be a fun thought-experiment to meditate on where our well-known cast of Christmas characters might have been on the spectrum of expectation (the Expectrum?) five days before the main event.
I’m imagining the community of shepherds, with their tents and other basic living arrangements set up, leaning on their staffs and chatting about whether it was time to move to a different spot on the meagre-grassed hills between Bethlehem and the Judean deserts to the east. Maybe a few more days near Bethlehem would be a good idea. They are not expecting anything beyond the daily patterns of watching over the flocks in their care.
I’m imagining the magi in the east. The star hasn’t appeared in the sky yet, so they’re also going about their daily patterns – patterns which look very different from those of the shepherds. Perhaps they are undertaking some sort of academic study, examining the histories and religious texts of foreign nations. Maybe the idea of the Messiah would be so fresh in their minds from their research that when they see the star in the very near future, it will instantly spark recognition and wondering. It’s hard to say what kinds of expectations they might have had before spotting the star, but any group of colleagues with that deep a commitment to curiosity may indeed have had some expectations of God working in the world – and an expectation that they would figure out exactly how and why that was taking place, no matter what efforts that might require.
I’m imagining the angels, who were preparing to share their announcement. Granted there are some big unknowns here – does time work the same way for angels? Do they need to practice before a big event? Since it’s an entertaining thing to imagine, I’m going to picture them rehearsing, with a good-natured but demanding angel director. They know the Good News and are probably very excited to share it. I wonder if they are expecting an audience of shepherds.
And of course, I’m imagining Mary and Joseph who had the most complex expectations five days out. They’re bumping uncomfortably along the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, both of them realizing that the timing of this mandatory census trip could not have been worse, and that there is no way they’d be getting back to Nazareth and home and the support of close family before this baby arrives.
Having been in those hazy days at the very end of pregnancy three times myself, I can attest to the fact that expectations at that time range from the expansive (“This is a whole new life about to begin – am I up to the challenge of being their mother?) to the imminent (“GET THIS BABY OUT OF ME ALREADY”).
I can only imagine that for Mary, clopping along a dusty road on a donkey, carrying the prophesied Son of God, those internal extremes would have been wildly intensified. If we could call out gently through time and whisper to her, “Don’t worry, Mary, he’ll be born in five days!” I’m sure that would be both a comfort and a terror. Everything will be done, and everything will be just beginning. Already/Not-yet. Expect this baby!
Our temporal place in the story of humankind affords us the ability to look back on the Christmas story and kind of stage our expectations based on the ending that we already know. Shepherds, you were in the right spot! Yes, magi, you were looking in the right direction! Angels, you shared the message so well that people will be reciting your words thousands of years from now! Mary and Joseph, the baby’s going to be fine! More than fine.
But letting ourselves reimagine the “expectrum” and jog ourselves out of the narrative’s familiarity can be a way to remind ourselves that Christ is still here with us in the current unknowns of our lives. In the expansive, existential questions we ask, in the imminent, earthly discomforts we have, in all our unfinished stories – right in the midst of us, here and yet-to-come, is the Divine.
A funny thing about Sunyoung’s cookies is that I don’t even remember how they turned out. My only memory of them is at that moment when she had just put them in the oven: done, and not yet done. But that joy and delight that she had in telling us to “Expect these cookies!” is a sweeter memory than any chocolate chip confection could be.
In our knowing and in our unknowing, may we all Expect with great joy. Happy Advent and Merry Christmas. I’m off to do a bit of baking!