One of my favorite Christmas stories has always been the one about a young couple, the wife heavily pregnant with her first child, on a journey of many miles. Plans go awry, and the couple is forced to welcome their new baby in a place they weren’t expecting at all. This story might sound familiar to you, but I’m fairly certain you don’t know it. Because this particular story isn’t about Mary and Joseph at all. It’s about my mom and dad leaving a family gathering on Christmas Eve and not making it 30 minutes down the road before having to stop at the closest hospital to hastily prepare for my arrival. It seemed I was in quite a hurry to share my birthday with the baby in the manger.
I’m not sure what my infant brain was thinking. Although growing up my mom was wonderful about making sure I was always able to have a birthday celebration before the Christmas season set in, I always felt a twinge of envy for everybody else, able to celebrate on the actual day of their birth, while I typically spent mine with extended family of varying levels of dysfunction. Coming from a big family that rides the fine line between Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer, over the years these gatherings ran the gamut from hilarious and heartwarming to straight-up crazy town, with approximately 6% of the crowd even remembering that Christmas Eve is SUPPOSED to be MY day too (insert extended bottom lip and crossed arms).
This lifelong streak of very un-me birthdays has become something of a joke among my family, culminating a number of years ago when, upon arriving to a family gathering, my brother-in-law greeted me with “Happy Birthmas!” Somehow it stuck. My notorious day had a name.
My first Birthmas after I became a mom was spent clench-fisted in the passenger seat of a two-door Grand Prix while my husband drove 300 miles through the most intense fog imaginable, more certain with each passing mile that my little family of three was about to meet its doom in the form of an unsuspecting cow loitering in the road.
A few years later, another Birthmas on the road had us stopping for lunch at the only place open, a gas station. A few roller dogs and soggy grilled cheese sandwiches later, I’m sure I don’t have to spell out for you how we ALL spent that miserable night. A little Birthmas wisdom for you, friends: Just. Keep. Driving.
My birthday never goes as planned. And for most of us, neither does Christmas. Someone always gets sick or has a meltdown at church (147 mini M&Ms clattering under the pews, anyone? Just my kids? Okay then.). Someone always wants a peanut butter sandwich instead of Grandma’s delicious mashed potatoes. And then there are those moments that hit us sudden and hard: an empty seat, a missing voice. These unplanned moments can really send our day off kilter, can’t they?
And yet, each year there seems to be a moment when my perspective shifts to where it should have been all along, when the hustle of preparation ends and the moment has arrived to just BE. For me, it has often happened at the candlelight service of a small country church nestled into the gently rolling hills of Iowa farmland. There is just something about seeing warm light shining through stained glass, hearing Silent Night on the old pipe organ, and envisioning thousands of other churches around the world all celebrating the most wonderful gift in history. It gets me every time.
God came for us. He really came! But the way he came was completely unexpected. The Jesus Storybook Bible tells it like this: “Everything was ready. The moment God had been waiting for was here at last! Mountains would have bowed down. Seas would have roared. Trees would have clapped their hands. But the earth held its breath… And when no one was looking, in the darkness, he came.”
The good things God has for us don’t always come at the time or in the way we expect. In fact, in my experience they rarely do. I’m sure the day leading up to Jesus’ birth had more bumps in the road for Mary and Joseph than my worst Birthmas. And in light of all God brought out of that incredible, completely unexpected night, my birthday disappointments don’t feel like a big deal at all. By focusing on God’s redemptive plan in the midst of unmet expectations, I have been learning to let go of my strivings for a birthday free from mishaps. At just the right time, he came. And maybe I did too.