One of the songs sure to show up over the next few weeks is “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” In our congregation, we sing it to the HYFRODOL tune, which is warm and familiar to me. As long as I have heard the story of Jesus’ birth, it has had expectations attached to it: the people in his time expected a certain messiah; we have expectations of our own as we move toward Christmas, even and we sing about love and hope and forgiveness.
The expectations didn’t stop with his birth. One of the ways to read the temptations he faced in the wilderness is as a trio of expectations: feed everyone, impress everyone, take control. We might even say we killed Jesus because he didn’t meet our expectations.
The word expect has some waiting built into it, at least etymologically–we are waiting for something to happen. Too often, however, it is colored by judgment. Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey, it’s hard to live up to expectations. Most of us do not become what others (or at least some of them) are waiting for us to become.
But that’s not the hard part–at least, not for me. The hard part is when the equation gets flipped around and I realize I am the expector, not the expectee. (I’m not sure either of those are real words, but what did you expect?) I want the grace for me to fall short, but I want others to measure up. So when I came across this sentence in Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace it felt worth sharing:
[People] owe us what we imagine they will give us. We must forgive them this debt.
The first time I read that sentence, I thought about my father saying in a sermon, “In life you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem is something you can solve; a predicament is something you have to learn to live with. I used to think my eldest son was a problem; now, I understand that he is a predicament.”
I learned the same thing about him. Our relationship grew when I learned not to expect what he was unable to give. I had to learn how to find it from someone else. He did, too.
I watch the kids in our town try to negotiate middle and high school and I wonder if I could have measured up had the expectations been the same. I never thought about my “resumé” when I was applying to Baylor. I just went to school and church and my after-school job and sent in my stuff. I never took an honors or AP course. I was a good student, but based on today’s expectations, I would be an also-ran.
I think Jesus would suffer much the same fate, based on the metrics we use to measure success in church life. The man wandered around that tiny little country with a handful of friends and followers, without much of a schedule or a plan. And he only lasted three years. He wouldn’t make it out of the first round with most search committees in big steeple churches.
My anachronistic comparison is not particularly original, and I am not as cynical as it sounds when it comes to church. My point is to raise this question: how do we forgive Jesus of the burden of our expectations?
For many years, one of the quotes that gives me hope in this season is from Meister Eckhart:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?
To be full of grace means, perhaps, to be mostly empty of expectations–at least the ones that come with weights of judgment attached to them. Charles Wesley wrote,
come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee
May we all rest in the Love that gave birth to us, even as we prepare to give birth to Love once again.