Scripture reading for today:

Isaiah 30:19-26, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Acts 13:16-25

Choosing Joy

I hadn’t been home for Christmas in five years. 

It was December 23, 2008, and I vibrated with excitement as we exited our car in the Orlando Airport parking garage. My husband was wrestling luggage from the trunk as I unstrapped our toddler from his car seat. In just a few short hours, this little guy would be spending Christmas with his grandparents for the very first time. Two thousand miles away, in Newfoundland, my mother eagerly prepared cakes and cookies while my father put the finishing touches on my son’s new toboggan. They wanted everything to be just perfect. 

We checked our bags, went through security, and as we approached our gate, I noticed the illuminated screen on the airport wall. Bright red letters spelled out the dreaded words, FLIGHT CANCELLED. 

My stomach dropped. I took a deep breath and approached the ticket counter. 

“Hi, we were supposed to be on that flight,” I said, gesturing towards the glowing letters on the screen above. 

Without making eye contact, the gate attendant asked for my information. She stared at her computer screen, typing quickly, surveying the flight options. Then, in a monotone voice, she said, “I can get you to Toronto tomorrow morning but I can’t get you to St. John’s, Newfoundland until December 27.” 

I stood frozen. After 30 seconds, I managed to stammer, “b-b-b-but, that’s after Christmas. We’re going home for Christmas.” 

She perked up and said with a smile, “Why don’t you take the flight to Toronto tomorrow morning and then you can take a bus the rest of the way?” 

Now, Newfoundland is an island about 1200 miles east of Toronto. Rage began to bubble inside of me at her ridiculous suggestion (and her blatant lack of knowledge about Canadian geography) but anger quickly gave way to profound sadness as I realized that we would not be going home for Christmas after all. 

“Snow? We see snow now?” My little boy said. 

“No, Baby. No snow today,” I whispered, holding back tears. 

I braced myself for his reaction. He was so eager to see snow and asked about it multiple times during our car ride from Tallahassee to Orlando. I anticipated sadness and anger and confusion but he didn’t flinch. Instead he stared in awe at the sights and sounds of the atmosphere around him. I envied his ignorance. 

My husband hugged me and as the tears escaped my eyes, they seeped into his flannel shirt. He decided to take our son out of his stroller, to let him stretch his legs. I watched them as they walked away to retrieve our luggage. My little boy ran with laughter towards the moving sidewalk, pointing with excitement, making sure Daddy didn’t miss this incredible, magical thing. 

I found a quiet corner and pulling my cell phone out of my purse, I took a deep breath. I had to call my mother and tell her the bad news. She answered the phone in a sing-song voice. 

“Helllooooo! I just finished frosting a chocolate cake! Your favourite! Are you all checked in?” 

A lump swelled in my throat as I choked through the words, “Mom, we aren’t coming.” 

We both cried as I explained the circumstances. She told me she loved me before hanging up to relay the bad news to my father. Rumour has it, she had a big cry and ate that entire freshly frosted chocolate cake, all by herself. 

In anticipation of traveling for the holidays, we hadn’t decorated our own home for Christmas. We didn’t have a tree, we didn’t have presents, we didn’t even have any food in the fridge. My husband’s mission was to get us back to Tallahassee before the grocery stores closed. He was determined to make some semblance of Christmas happen. In our rush to get there, we were pulled over by a State Trooper. As the siren blared behind us, I burst into tears. The kindly, southern officer approached the vehicle, stooped to the window and said, “Sir, do you know how fast you were…wait…is she alright?” 

After a brief explanation of our predicament, the officer let us go and wished us well. I kept peeking back at our little boy, grieving the Christmas I wanted for him, the Christmas he wouldn’t have. He stared out the window with wide-eyed amazement, waving his tiny hand at passing cars and singing along with the radio. He was as pleasant as could be. 

We made it home with an hour to spare so my husband set off to the nearest store where he got some groceries, some wrapping paper and a handful of gifts. A friend in the neighbourhood had set up a tiny Christmas Tree in our living room when she learned we were returning home. It was about two-feet tall with a few red ornaments. I was both grateful and saddened when I saw it. It was a kind gesture but I couldn’t help imagining the sights and smells of the real evergreen tree that my father had cut in anticipation of our arrival. Our son ran into the living room, yelling with happiness at the sight of this tiny, little tree, delicately pinching its artificial branches. 

We read the Christmas story and after tucking our son into bed, my husband and I wrapped up the few gifts he was able to find. A little book, a rubber ball, a small, plastic train. I imagined the heaps of presents under my parents’ tree with no little boy there to open them on Christmas morning. My heart hurt. I wanted so much more for him. I wanted this Christmas to be special. 

In the early light of the morning, our little man woke us up, brimming with excitement about the discoveries under the tree. Sleepy and still saddened, I stumbled to the living room, where he ran ahead to show us the handful of presents. He tore off the paper, oohing and ahhing at every little thing. He threw his new ball and laughed when I caught it. “Train!” he yelled, opening his new toy, crawling on his knees and running it across the floor. 

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Our son was not missing out on a magical Christmas. He was having the time of his life. He wasn’t bogged down by disappointment or resentment, grief or sadness. He was filled with joy and wonder. From the long car ride to the unexpected hotel stay, from the cancelled flights to the random presents, from the police encounter to the teeny, tiny tree, he saw beauty in it all. His physical experience was the same as ours but his expectations and reactions were far different. Where I saw disappointment, he saw excitement. Where I saw heartache, he saw happiness. Where I saw less than, he saw more than enough. Where I chose grief, he chose joy. 

The first Christmas was far different than anyone could have expected it would be. God’s people waited for hundreds of years for the prophecy of the coming Messiah to unfold. They envisioned a holy welcoming, a triumphant arrival, a coming fit for a celestial king. Instead, he arrived as a baby through the body of an unwed teenage girl, in the dark of night, in a dingy stable. It was far from perfect and it didn’t meet anyone’s expectations but God showed us, firsthand, how to celebrate when things don’t go the way we planned. In fact, choosing to see joy in the midst of difficult circumstances in a beautiful way to worship. 

That Christmas in 2008, turned out to be one of our most special, not because it went according to plan, but in spite of unmet expectations. God taught us, through the example of a small child, how to choose laughter, wonder, dancing and singing in the middle of heartache, disappointment and pain and that by doing so, we can experience Emmanuel – God with us.