Last week I was sitting with the Sundays readings, and in particular the angel's visitation to Mary in the Gospel of Luke.
And it put me in mind of that most familiar of Christmas experiences, the Christmas sweater. That is, the gift you get from a well intentioned relative that is so absolutely hideous it is really everything you can do to keep from visibly cringing at the sight of it. The gift that makes you want to shake the person as you cry out, "How do you not know me?"
Not even Matt Damon can make this look cool.
I had a grandmother who was a long time master of the Christmas sweater. It didn't matter whether you had a list or not, whether the gifts you put on it were easy to find or hard, cheap or expensive -- what you could be reasonably sure of was that you were getting the opposite. So for the many, many years of childhood when I was desperate for (and oh so easy to please) with anything and everything Star Wars, she'd show up with a subscription to National Geographic, or Time Magazine. When I was devouring the works of Stephen King, she'd give me a year pass to the zoo. No matter that the zoo was over an hour from my house, or that I wasn't much for going. She liked the zoo, just like she enjoyed National Geographic, so that was my gift.
And her clothing choices were no better. She didn't buy me this, but I swear, she could have:
Grandma wasn't all bad. She looked like Lucille Ball (complete with cotton candy orange hair) and her life was filled with crazy, I Love Lucy-type stories like being bitten by someone's pet pig on the streets of Chicago and then spending the day fearing she might get pig rabies.
She was just terrible at gift-giving for kids. Each Christmas Day my brother and sisters and I would go to her house pretty much resigned to the fact that whatever was in those packages, it was most definitely not going to be awesome. You know it's bad when we counted on my brother's horrible allergy to her cats to save us from having to stay and be disappointed for too long.
It strikes me that God, for all his loving and benevolence, is also pretty big with the apparent Christmas sweaters. Consider the Israelites: at the time of Jesus, they're stuck living under the occupation of the Romans. They're praying for a liberator to save them. And what does God give them? A human child, who will eventually be crucified by the Romans.
Likewise, when Mary and Joseph get engaged, what are they hoping for? A life of love and fidelity, a family. And what does God get them? A pregnancy that will not only immediately complicate their relationship but permanently muck up their standing in society. And a life together that involves raising the son of God. (No pressure.)
In this day and age, it's pretty much expected that if you end up with a Christmas sweater, you don't complain about it, you just return it for whatever it is you want. And sometimes that is probably the right decision:
(This photo -- and so many other great options -- courtesy of myuglychristmassweater.com)
But sometimes I try to resist that impulse; no matter what I think of what I've been given, I'll just keep it and see what happens. And wouldn't you know it, sometimes those gifts end up being the things I like most of all.
Life with my grandmother was much the same way. Once were old enough to appreciate her, we actually grew to look forward to the next bit of random craziness, like the cards she'd send for odd holidays like Halloween or Valentine's Day with a dollar in them; the stories of how she used to tell my mother's childhood friends that she was an alien from another world sent to teach us how to love; the random gifts she gave at Christmas. ("Wow, a Precious Moments statue of a deer. Thanks so much, Grandma. No, I didn't know this particular kind of deer is endangered.")
In the Christian story, it turns out Jesus did in fact liberate precisely through his faithfulness even to death. And Mary and Joseph loved him like crazy.
All of which is to say, we should be careful when it comes to dismissing the Christmas sweaters of our lives. We might not always be the best judges.