Christmas 1991. I wanted nothing more and nothing less than a video game for my Nintendo called Battle Toads. For months I reminded my mom on a daily basis that this was my only Christmas wish for the year. From all indications, I was well on my way to getting what I wanted. She all but promised me the game. I was ecstatic. Christmas morning couldn’t come soon enough. I don’t remember exactly what time I got out of bed on December 25, 1991 but I do know it was quite early. I ran to the tree, found the box from my mom with my name on it, and ripped through the wrapping like a boy possessed. I noticed that the box was much larger than a typical video game box. My worst fears were realized when, to my dismay, the wrapping paper gave way to a box of Frosted Flakes cereal. Tony the Tiger had never been more disappointing. I threw the box, yelled something obscene at my mother, and ran to my room. A few minutes later, she walked in holding the box of Frosted Flakes and encouraged me to open it. I refused for a while but her gentle insistence won me over and inside the box I found what I’d been expecting. I was embarrassed and elated.
When Mary gave birth to Jesus two millennia ago, Jewish expectations were running at an all-time high. The expectation was that a Messiah would come and free them from the tyrannical rule of Rome. This Messiah would rule as King, ushering in the eternal reign of God over the entire world with the nation of Israel positioned as his blessed and chosen people. But we all know now that the story didn’t go exactly according to plan. Jesus is literally born into filth, celebrated by peasant shepherds, chased out of the country by Herod. In his adult years there are rumors that he may indeed be the expected Messiah, but he disappoints everyone. Not only does he fail to conquer Rome, he dies a criminal’s death on a Roman cross. This is the epitome of letdown, a magnified version of unwrapping a gift, expecting something great, only to find a box of cereal. And yet, in the end, the death and eventual resurrection of Jesus does in fact usher in the eternal reign of God over the entire world and enacts the blessing of God over all people. The fullness of Immanuel, God with us, is not realized until thirty-something years after the Nativity scene. It isn’t until Easter morning that Christmas night actualizes its whole meaning, because it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that fulfills the promise born to us in the manger. Christmas and Easter are two ends of the same story.
Has Christmas ever left you feeling deflated? Have you ever experienced the hangover of December 26? We enjoy the weeks and months leading up to Christmas, full of hope and expectation, embracing Advent, only to find that the morning after we’re left with nothing but more stuff. I’ve felt this way plenty of times. But I am comforted by the fact that the first Christmas left an entire nation deflated, feeling flat, and wanting more. If our Christmas story ends at the manger, we will all be left utterly disappointed, holding cereal boxes in our hands instead of the great big gift of new life that God offers. It is only when we allow the story to unfold, to take us all the way to the garden, the cross, the grave, and the road to Emmaus, that we can celebrate the entirety of God’s magnificent gift. So this Christmas, remember that the Nativity scene is only the beginning, rolling the opening credits, teasing us with what’s to come. It is not the end. Christmas celebrates the start of something and invites us to an entire lifetime of hope and expectation. So celebrate well. Eat, drink, be merry. And remember that this is only the beginning.