All over the world on Sunday, December 24, millions of families — perhaps especially children — are eagerly anticipating Christmas morning. The promise of presents, sweet treats, games and celebrations will leave many too excited to sleep.
For Christians, Christmas Eve is the final day of Advent, the season decked with anticipation for the arrival of Christmas Day and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Indeed, this sense of anticipation for Christ’s arrival is reflected throughout the Bible.
Christ’s arrival on Christmas began with the announcement of another birth, that of his cousin, John the Baptist.
In Luke 1, the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist is told to his father, Zechariah the priest, by the same angel who would announce the Incarnation to Mary, Gabriel. Zechariah is bewildered, because he and his wife, Elizabeth, are elderly. His disbelief is temporarily punished by Gabriel with muteness until John’s birth. No doubt this increased the anticipation felt by both he and Elizabeth as they waited nine long months for John to come to term.
Several months after announcing John’s birth, Gabriel announced the coming birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. He would be the Savior of the world, the Messiah, whom John the Baptist will proclaim to the masses as a forerunner. Initially, Mary is confused by the angel’s words, but responds in faith, saying, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
For Mary and Joseph, thus begins nine months of waiting. Pregnancy is a time of great preparation and anticipation for any parents-to-be. Imagine how much more so, then, if your expected baby had been foretold to you to be the Messiah and Son of God! Think how many more questions you’d have and how eagerly you’d look forward to his arrival.
As Jesus’ birth draws near, Mary and Joseph are thrown another curveball: a decree from Caesar Augustus requiring everyone to go to their hometowns to be registered for a census. Joseph is living in Nazareth at the time, but is from Bethlehem nearly 90 miles away. The couple knows the time is nigh, but now they have a very long journey — on foot! It is safe to assume their level of anticipation would have risen out of worry they wouldn’t reach Bethlehem in time.
But the anticipation was not over.
As Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, there are shepherds in the outlying hills and fields watching their flocks. The shepherding profession is, in many ways, one of alert anticipation. Shepherds are always anticipating the needs of their flock: the need for a new grazing spot, the straying of a sheep or the threat of potential predators.
Bursting into their typical night watch, an angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds, leaving them startled and fearful. Certainly they weren’t anticipating that!
“Be not afraid” the angel says, “for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Suddenly, a multitude of angels appears, and the shepherds declare, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15).
Imagine the burning desire of these shepherds to see what heaven itself had announced to them!
There are also the Wise Men from the east, who see the star in the sky and know it announces the arrival of a new king. “We have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him,” they say to those in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:2). By all accounts, their travels were not brief. Ancient texts suggest these men traversed from as far away as Persia, India and Arabia.
For the Wise Men, the anticipation of greeting a newborn king, revealed as supremely special by prophecy and a divinely appointed star, compels them to embark on the journey. Their story involves the simple anticipation of reaching a destination, but also of knowing whom they are traveling to see — a new king they long to worship and for whom they brought their best gifts.
The anticipation of Christmas is not just for children and families — it is part of the Christmas story itself. While all the trimmings and trappings of the modern Christmas holiday are magical, we must remember that the excitement we feel leading up to Christmas today is ultimately a mirror of the anticipation felt on the very first Christmas Eve.
Indeed, Christ’s birth on Christmas Day fulfills the anticipation of Advent: Jesus is the hope the world has longed for; Jesus is the peace the world needs; Jesus is the joy that fills the hearts of those who long for him; Jesus is the love of God, come to earth.
So, on this Christmas Eve, look forward to the fun and festivity of celebrating Christmas in the morning. But perhaps also share in the ancient anticipation of Christmas — the expected arrival of the Savior.