John Bennison Words and Ways | Unexpected and Unwelcome Gifts: Advent I

Unexpected and Unwelcome Gifts: Advent I

Commentary to begin an Advent Journey


The Unexpected Gift

Since the time they were young children, I have always given my now-adult daughters Advent calendars on Thanksgiving weekend.  It has become a long-expected family custom, dating back even further than Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

It’s a pretty simple idea.  Another day, another little door to open, as we make a 25-day trek from one holiday to the next. Behind each little door there’s a token gift, in anticipation of something greater yet to come.

For certain religious types, the yearly remembrance of the coming of the Christ child is supposed to be the greater gift, and culmination of this little journey.  But nowadays it seems, mere expectation and anticipation are sufficiently generic enough to adequately describe the season.  The little calendar begins the table conversation. “What do you want for Christmas?” I ask.  “It’s only a month away, you know.”  My little gift to them at Thanksgiving cost me a buck apiece at TJ’s, but I know it’s only the beginning.

My household has yet to succumb to the trend in general, but like Christmas gift-giving itself – and, beginning with onset of the official shopping season — Advent seems to have become a time for those day-by-day tokens and bobbles to get a little ahead of themselves; if not out of hand.

This year, in the swanky Knightsbridge neighborhood of London, upscale Harrod’s has teamed with Porsche Design to come up with an Advent calendar of its own.  With a price tag of a cool $1-million USD, the slick six-foot square silver aluminum cube has the traditional number of doors; behind which the gift recipient can find such things a chronograph timepiece in rose gold, or depictions of what will be their individually customizable Porsche design kitchen, a 28-foot long speedboat, etc.  How terribly, awfully nice, I thought.

Harrod’s claims their Advent calendar is the ultimate Christmas gift for millionaires on your list who are historically impossible to shop for. “This is something they really do not have,” they insist.  It will prove to be a most unexpected gift. For one, I know my two daughters would certainly not expect such an Advent calendar from their father.

So, which would you rather have, the gift for which you asked and/or probably expected, or the unexpected gift that may not be what you had in mind at all?  Coyly, Advent is supposed to be all about expecting the unexpected.  In either case, it seems to me, the trickier part is whether you’re gonna like what you might get.  For a little context, just consider the appointed Common Lectionary gospel text, Year A:

“As to that day and hour, no one knows.
Not angels in the air, nor the son.
None but the father alone.
For as the days of Noah came
So will be the coming of the earthly son …
Then two men will be in the field:
One is taken away and one is left.
Two women will be grinding flour at the mill:
One is taken away and one is left. …
So be watchful, since you don’t know on what day
Your lord is coming.
But you know that if the master of the house
Had known at what hour of the night the thief was coming.
He would have kept awake
And not allowed his house to be broken into.
Therefore, you also must keep awake,
For in an hour unknown to you comes the earthly son.”

Matthew 24:36-44 – Translated  version by Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament


The Unwelcome Gift

Apparently, the stern remembrance of past calamity and dire predictions of disastrous things yet to come are the best comparisons Matthew the evangelist could come up with to describe the unexpected hour the “earthly son” (of God) will come; not unlike the intrusion of a thief in the night.  How terribly, awfully unnerving.

As unwelcome as that all may sound, I should be confused. Both the shopping calendar, as well as Matthew’s sweet nativity tale of the Magi’s visit to the manger, says this “earthly son” of the divine comes as a bright shiny gift, like a new star rising in the night sky; and certainly not akin to a robber who’ll ease me of my newest treasures.

Further, my children’s Advent calendar always indicates he comes every year without fail on December 25th.  Not only that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the after-Christmas clearance sales got a jumpstart at midnight, if consumer spending does not match the market analyst’s own Advent expectations.  The more likely question these days: If I don’t like what comes when it’s supposed to come, what’s the exchange and returns policy?

In contrast, it seems to me the other half of the Advent message may be about more than simply expecting the unexpected.  It may be about getting something for Christmas that we would not necessarily wish for, or choose on our own accord.  What kind of “gift” is that?

The unexpected and unwelcome gifts of the season may be about looking and seeing what lies beneath the surface, behind the sweet story of Christmas, and even beyond our comfort zone.  It may be about exposing the stark difference between the way things appear to be, and the unexpected, even irrepressible way things might become; that is, if we actually hoped and longed for another kind of gift this holiday season.  And that may require a little introspection, a journey inward — more than simply forward — in the days ahead.

The Story, and the Back-story

The Thanksgiving weekend began this year with a heightened security threat level for holiday travelers. The biggest news story that even eclipsed the latest global powder keg (Korea), was the uproar over pat-downs of the TSA airport security screening process.

Apparently, body scanners are uncomfortable to some folks.  They’re regarded to be an unwelcome intrusion.  If at all possible, they’d like to keep hidden the fact that their most private parts are not all that much different from anyone else’s.

At the same time, I’d certainly agree the technology isn’t foolproof.  So-called “full body” scans may be able to verify I’m not a lethal threat to anyone else.  But it can’t reveal anything more about me than that.  It can’t tell the whole story.

Equally unpredictable, the alternative touchy-feely pat-downs can only go so far.  At best, they can only assure everyone else I’m not hiding anything from anyone but myself.

So, there’s the front page story of holiday travelers, revealing what we believe to be our latest and greatest in-securities that threaten to spoil the merriment of the season.  It only scratches the surface.  And, it’s nothing new.  It’s as old as the first Christmas story, and the terrorist threat that compelled the holy family to flee for their lives.

So there’s the perennial story of Advent and the coming of the Christ child, our yearly trek back to the manger; along with the angels and lowly beasts, the wisemen and low-lifes. And then there’s the back-story to be found if we might look a little deeper, a little further back to the ancient story of a Christmas yet to come:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Isaiah 2:2-5 – The appointed text from the Hebrew scriptures, Common Lectionary, Year A:

This is the ancient prophet’s vision of a Christmas yet to come.  It is the story of a journey whose destination has yet to be reached – where all peoples join a common path that leads to total disarmament (in every sense of the word).

This is the back-story to the present journey we call Advent.  Yet it’s true fulfillment remains as unwelcome as it would be unexpected; for it would likely require of us the costliest of gifts we are as yet unwilling to offer.  We settle instead for gold, frankinscence any myrhh, at best.

These Advent days are a time for us to venture further and deeper into the truly-unexpected and still-unwelcome gifts that could one day lead us all to unparalleled heights, and not merely back to the stable once again.  Can you imagine such a gift; a place where, once and for all, no returns were necessary?


  1. JB – The Isaiah passage is one of my favorites, so I enjoyed your use of it in its entirety in your message. No need to settle for “trinkets” with such a grand scale as total disarmament. I am disarmed by your message — in the best way possible — and I’m grateful for your wonderful ability with words. They are a gift to me. Stan

  2. Robert /

    Thanks for the thoughtful Advent meditation. I liked it very much. I’m off to Harrods! Robert

  3. You give us much to ponder in this piece. Fred

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