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Good morning, Beloved of God and welcome to the season of Advent, the season of waiting and wondering and wandering. As I prepared to share with you this week, I was lost until late Friday night into yesterday morning, not just because we’re moving away from the gospel and into Isaiah, but because the Spirit was moving me away from my norms and into murkier, more personal territory.
So I spent more time than I ever have just…waiting. Pondering, listening, thinking, making notes on my phone, deleting notes from my phone, worrying that I might show up this morning with nothing, and waiting some more.
Which, it turns out, is perfect for this day. Because while Advent heralds the Coming of Christ, Christ has not yet come. The holy mother is only 37 weeks along, and the Christchild is not yet ready to be born. There is still so much stretching, moving, and transforming to do before she’ll be ready to deliver; before her holy son will be ready to leave the warm safety of her womb and be born to a world that will eventually crucify him.
Now, as a mother who endured what felt like a 13-year pregnancy, let me just say that these last weeks -- from 37 onward -- are perhaps the longest, most excruciatingly drawn out days of pregnancy, even for someone like me whose pregnancy began and remained a dream:
I learned I was about 8 weeks pregnant, and accidentally so, on the morning of my 29th birthday, and from that day on through the next 6 months, I enjoyed a perfect pregnancy full of flutters and kicks and no sickness to speak of. The most I could complain about were early braxton hicks contractions that began around week 29, and landed me in the hospital at week 32 -- on my husband’s and my 5th anniversary -- receiving magnesium and fluids via IV to fortify Eli’s lungs in the event that he came early. For a few weeks I was on modified bed rest, but still, otherwise, living a dream. Truly!
And even so, by week 37, and after five weeks of hearing he might be premature, I was ready for him to vacate the premises! Having been part of a weekly pregnancy group through my hospital, I watched as one person in the group after another gave birth and left me, the Last Prego Standing. What made it worse was that I had come to expect, given my midwives’ concern over those early contractions, that I would deliver early. But week 37 came and went, then 38, and 39, even 40. By this point, I was done. My body was entirely over it. I did not think I could stretch one more millimeter or grow any more uncomfortable than I already was with this surely-full-grown-human living under my skin. And that is how I came to God’s purpose behind making human pregnancies 40 weeks long: Because by the time you are full-term, you are ready and even eager to endure the unfathomable pain of labor and delivery if, afterward, your body is finally your own again. I’d had all the necessarily grotesque and scary conversations, I’d carried the ice in my hand for 67 seconds, and I even accepted that because my three sisters had delivered 10 of their 11 children by c-section, such was possible and even likely for me, despite how desperately I wanted to deliver “naturally.” I was certain, over those last four weeks, that I was ready to have this baby and that the worst that could happen would be a c-section.
And so I, like the Prophet Isaiah, spent those weeks crying out for God to come down and, if not tear open the heavens on my behalf, then at least compel my child to tear me open and finally be born!
Oh how foolish I was.
As I think about it today, I can’t help but wonder how it was for Mary, the mother of Christ. I mean…we know from Luke’s record of Mary’s Magnificat -- her song of praise in Luke chapter 1 -- that she consented to carry a Warrior Child who would tear open the heavens on behalf of the lowly and scatter the proud, bring down Emperors from their thrones and exalt the poor and oppressed, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty! Indeed, she was so confident of what she believed was true and what she hoped would come to pass that she turned heel and ran away from any who might judge her for unwed pregnancy, directly to the home of the cousin she knew would see and hear and celebrate and EXPECT along with her. But I wonder how things shifted as Jesus grew in her belly.
I wonder if she came to the end of her pregnancy thinking she knew exactly what to expect having no doubt attended many red-tent births of aunts, cousins, friends, and neighbors throughout her life. And I wonder how surprised, maybe even broken, she was when she realized -- both as a pregnant woman and as an Israelite living under Imperial oppression and occupation -- that God was not coming to her and her people as a warrior, but as a helpless child. One who would break open her body, be nourished at her breast, be scolded by her at the temple for running away, be urged by her into ministry at Cana, and then, at the last, be followed to the cross where her tears would soak the ground at his feet as she watched her baby die.
She couldn’t possibly have imagined any of that at week 37 when she was almost certainly hastening his birth. And so I wonder if she ever looked back and wished she’d been more attentive in the waiting.
I know I do. Because at week 37, I had no idea that a c-section was far from the worst case scenario, or that I’d actually become the statistic that others are warned can but almost certainly won’t happen: I had no idea that my body would have to be cut open first to pull his tiny body from my own to save his life from the suffocating knot in his umbilical cord; then again, to try and stop the hemorrhaging; and a third time, finally, to take my uterus and save my life. At week 37, when I was begging to be torn open so my son could be born and my new life could begin, this was not what I had in mind. I had no idea that my “new life” and transformed future would be one where those were the last weeks I would ever get to carry a child in my belly. And I tell you this will all sincerity and lament, even though we’re really not supposed to entertain what ifs and woulda-shoulda-couldas:
If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t have rushed Eli’s birth. I would’ve savored every last ultrasound, every chance I had to see him and hear his heartbeat from the safety of my womb. I would’ve reveled in each and every roll of his body making waves across my abdomen as he moved closer to the sound of my husband’s voice singing to him. I would’ve taken more late-term photos instead of dreaming of a waistline, and every time someone asked if he was born yet I would’ve rejoiced in saying no! He’s still safe and sound in my sacred womb, because neither of us is quite ready for what’s to come, and we need just a little more time to stretch and grow and prepare our hearts for the New Life that will be here sooner than we can imagine, and will forever end this blessed normal.
What I’m saying is I would’ve taken the waiting more seriously. Instead of rushing toward what I thought I was ready for and away from what I felt overdone by, I would’ve trusted that those last few weeks of waiting, in particular, were precious and deserved every breath of my undivided attention. I would’ve treated those days like my last days of pregnancy ever, and tended to the soreness in my limbs, admired the myriad ways my body could stretch and grow and transform even more to accommodate a tiny human who still needed my womb. I would’ve celebrated the ways that this profound discomfort of growing new life prepared me to literally give him my own flesh and blood as food, and trade my own future plans and dreams to bring to birth his one beautiful, precious life.
Do you hear what I’m saying?
It’s not that I want a do-over, because while his birth took me well beyond any imagined worst case scenario straight to death’s door which I was lucky — no, divinely favored — to come through alive, if without a uterus and utterly changed, I wouldn’t trade him or our story for a thing. Eli is the child I dreamed of and, from conception to birth to now, he is how I’m becoming who I was born to be.
It’s that I didn’t surrender to the wait, and I missed so, so much for it.
And so I wonder if or when, precisely, during the 40 or last few weeks before Jesus was born, Mary’s perspective transformed from a song of exaltation to the God who can tear open the sky, into a mother’s tender prayer for mercy and a place to give birth safely; into a quiet, inward prayer from clay to her Potter that “thy will be done.” I wonder if she surrendered to the wait, or if, as the years passed, she wished she had.
And this is what returns me to the prophet Isaiah, whose words in verse 4 are now etched into my skin like a binding around my wrist: No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived of a God like ours who acts on behalf of those who wait for Them.
Here in the first week of Advent, we don’t -- indeed we can’t! -- yet know what we’re waiting for; only that we’re desperate for New Life to be born among us in this broken, violent, warring world, and that the wait can feel endlessly and needlessly cruel as we bear witness to terror and genocide and the everyday aches and joys of being alive. It can be easier and more satisfying to cry out for God to tear open the skies and make Godself known in magnificent, even terrifying ways for the sake of the broken and oppressed, than to trust that the God who seeded New Life in us will bring it to birth when it, and we, are ready..
But if we are -- and we are! -- like Isaiah who cried out for the skies to be torn open, then we can also become like Isaiah whose watching and remembering and waiting became a prayer to the Parent who comforts his children, a quiet plea for mercy to a potter who tenderly molds his clay into something new and beautiful.
And so my prayer, as we begin the long 4 weeks til the Birth of Christ, is that we will tend to the waiting. That we will explore the spaces that feel too full of grief or too emptied by loss to be transformed; that we’ll drink deep from the well of not knowing, and become friends with discomfort. That we will tend to the sore spots, and surrender to the stretching, trusting that New Life will be born after the waiting. Amen.
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