“’Tis the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild;Madeleine L’Engle
if Mary’d been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.”
Twenty-seven years ago, I entered the season of Advent nine months pregnant.
That year, 1994, as this, 2021, the lectionary texts that I preached beat a tattoo under my ribs with every kick of my soon-to-be-born daughter. “The time is coming, declares the Lord!” It was easy to read and hear those words from Jeremiah applying specifically to me as my due date crept ever closer. “Stay alert at all times” was biblically granted permission to consult my What to Expect When You’re Expecting book with each Braxton-Hicks twinge. Malachi’s refrain, “Who can endure the day of his coming?,” was not only the reading for the second week of Advent, but my refrain after every Lamaze class, as I reckoned with the inevitability of the pain of labor.
As the Advent season wore on, the texts were less about enduring the day of the Lord and more about the wonder of bringing new life into the world. I happily lingered there, as those words perfectly described the soul journey I was taking. That my body was capable of growing new life was a wonderment to me. That this baby was being knit together inside me, miracle and mystery both, never ceased (or ceases) to amaze me. As the weekly psalm reading gave way to the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise, I understood in new ways the place of deep strength that anchored that song: “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my Savior. God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next.” This had been my daily prayer for over ten years: May I be granted the opportunity to tell of God to the next generation. Mary would soon be bearing down with all her strength so that she could bring this child into the world. Bring? Or send? Even in my ninth month of pregnancy, I was not so uncomfortable that I was ready to release my baby away from me into the world. Stay here, I secretly hoped, where I can protect you, keep you warm and safe and fed. How could Mary’s words give me encouragement to bring forth my own child into a world both beautiful and cruel?
Each day of Advent brought me closer to meeting my child. I had formed my own opinion of her as the months went by, of course, based partly on my hopes that she would get the best of both her parents and my fears that she would get the worst. Though I knew that personality is nurture as well as nature, I also knew there would be things about her that were and are simply her way of being alive, of life living itself in her.
Christmas came on a Sunday that year. I preached the morning service (one instead of the usual three), came home, and began my maternity leave. Jesus was born! Now to get my own baby here. Eight weeks to focus not on preaching, pastoral care, administrative duties, but to bond with my baby, soon to join us. I put myself on the couch, opened the What to Expect book, and counted the number of kicks to reassure myself that all was well.
When the time eventually came, her birth did not go according to my plan. Three days of labor and an emergency C-section were not on the birth plan I had worked out with my midwife. But when she took her first breath and cried her first cry, sounding for all the world like a little lamb, the process of getting her here paled in importance. Later that night, after everyone else had left and I could hold my newborn baby, I counted fingers and toes. I traced the double whorl of her hair and began to memorize the way her features were arranged. I marveled at each breath, rejoiced in each sound she made (Is that a hungry cry? They said I’d be able to tell the difference).
Advent is about giving us time and space to prepare for a future we cannot ultimately plan or control. We are told to practice waiting, to look for signs and wonders. We’re told at the beginning of the season to prepare for the worst, for the sign that all normal things are disappearing. Certainly, everyone preparing to welcome a baby into their lives knows something of the fear and panic that accompanies the news that someone new is on the way. By the end of the Advent season, we’re joining Elizabeth and Mary in their songs of joy for the children about to be born. Elizabeth rejoices in becoming pregnant after waiting such a long time (like Hannah before her, her culture taught her to feel shame at her condition), and Mary rejoices that she of low status will nevertheless be one through whom God will do something amazing. That is the future none of us can plan—the thing God will do through us, even us, we who cannot imagine being a Theotokos (God-bearer), who often cannot imagine God wanting to do something in us, through us, for us, with us, to be part of the gospel story of scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things.
Advent is about learning to hope that when God comes among us, we too will be caught up in the wonder of being Theotokos with Mary, willing to give thanks and praise for the labor, willing to step out from shame and loudly proclaim that we are the ones through whom God will do a new thing.
The night my baby was born, after adoring family members had left to sleep, I was alone with my newborn daughter for the first time. I did what my arms had been longing to do since I first knew she was on the way: cradle her and sing Away in a Manger to her. I saw the stoplights at the entrance to the hospital through my window. A car was sitting patiently with its blinker on. I wanted to lean out the window and shout, with Mary, “Don’t you see that the world has changed? My baby is born! God has done a new thing!”
- Madeleine L’Engle, A Cry Like A Bell: Poems (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2000), p.58.
- Jeremiah 31:31
- Malachi 3:2
- Luke 1:46-56
Claire is an elder in the North Carolina Annual Conference, serving as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Graham. She is a regular contributor and co-creator with the Wild Goose Festival and co-founder of Raleigh Beer and Hymns.