The Common Good

There's a Difference Between Expectancy and Expectation

I always had very mixed feelings about Christmas as a kid. My dad — not a religious guy — went all out for this holiday, in the typical secular ways. He bought so many presents that it would end up being hard to make our way through the dining room, where we put the tree. We’d spend at least two weekends in November hanging lights and other swag outside, and the house resonated with Bing Crosby, Dean Marin and John Denver, all wishing us merry Christmas, over and over again.

Urbanlight/Shutterstock
Urbanlight/Shutterstock

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I came to hate decorating the house. All of that time spent on the roof could have been much better used playing with my friends and, of course, I never hung the lights correctly. I’d flop them along the wrong side of the roofline, only to be sent back to make it right. And suffice it to say that, although I love the Rat Pack singers in particular, hearing any carol more than 43 times in the course of three weeks can sour even the most ardent fans.

Then there was the matter of the gifts. As I said, the piles of boxes were fairly obscene, which actually proved an embarrassment if we had other family visiting for Christmas. I was not a fan of being the center of attention, and opening my remaining presents while jealous cousins looked on made me just want to get it over and done with.

I know what you’re thinking right about now. “Poor guy, suffering beneath his yoke of plenty. How did he survive?”But the thing is, when you have every single thing the world tells you that Christmas is about, and the moment it’s done you feel strangely vacant and more than a little bit depressed, there’s really no excuse left for your disappointment.

That is, unless what you’ve been sold is a lie.

What I came to realize was that our family Christmas was far more about meeting preexisting expectations than it was about nurturing and sitting with the mysterious, open-ended gift of expectancy. We had an image in our mind of what Christmas was going to be and, come hell or high water, it would come to pass. We’d manufacture the feelings we searched for by setting up the perfect scene, and by making sure our wish lists were fulfilled

But it always fell short. There was some toy that wasn’t as good as the commercial for it (shocking!), and the feelings crooned in the songs never quite seemed to materialize in our midst. We had planned the joy out of the moment. We had set our expectations out there for Dec. 25, and then we’d done all we could to will it into being.

But Advent isn’t about expectations. As they say in 12-step groups, expectations are little more than premeditated resentments. This just means that every time we set conditions under which we’ll finally be happy, fulfilled or content, we’ll inevitably be let down.This is either because something in the elaborate plans we lay out will fail or — perhaps even worse — they’ll be pulled off seamlessly. And then we’re left with the lingering question: Why didn’t it work?

The expectancy of Advent, on the other hand, is open-ended. It is hopeful, without setting terms and conditions for the outcomes. It says, with wide-eyed wonderment, something beautiful could happen.

What that looks like, we won’t know until it’s already happening. And rather than planning and preparing it into existence, it’s more about making space, setting time and attention aside to seek, to look, to notice. It’s about living into the fullness of life, here and now, as it already is, rather than requiring it to be different in order for it to be good enough. In the mindful practice of creating that space, we may become attuned enough to the sense of Advent that we carry it with us into the rest of the year.

Welcome to Advent. Something beautiful is coming.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners featured writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Photo: Urbanlight/Shutterstock

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