We are rounding the bend. We are nearing the end.
These sacred days will soon reach their fulfillment.
With Christmas on the near horizon, I am so pleased to offer you this Advent story from my friend and fellow writer, Bonnie O’Neil.
The memories come flooding back to me, as they do on many a cold, dark December night. Flashes of a night, just like this one, many years ago. I was younger then, bright-eyed, full of hopes and big dreams.
The streets are deserted, save for my husband and me. I hear the click-clack of my soles on the cobblestones and press forward, click-clack, steady on. My feet, I cannot see. All is belly, swollen with the joy of life inside of me.
The wind howls. I wrap my garments tighter around me.
I reach out for his arm to steady me as I go. My feet falter on the uneven stones; his strong arm upholds me. It is just the two of us in this foreign land. There will be no mother by my side as I prepare to deliver my first-born child.
Inhaling the cold December air, I exhale the promise of all things new and wonderful. My warm breath hangs in the air, luminous against the cold dark night, and I sigh with relief that the child lies safe and warm inside me tonight.
Mystery, all is mystery and wonder. It is just days, hours perhaps, before I step into the vast unknown and begin the mysterious journey of motherhood. All is wonder. What will this child become? What kind of mother will I grow to be? There is much to ponder; there will be much to treasure in my heart.
I don’t think I fully appreciated Mary and her journey of faith until I was expecting a child of my own. All is Nativity in December, so when you are awaiting your own Christmas baby, I suppose it is natural to stop and reflect on the wonder not just of the incarnation of the Christ child, but also of the faith of the young woman who said yes to becoming His mother.
She was a teenager; I was 30. But that doesn’t mean I knew any more than she did about babies. In fact, she probably knew more! Her cobblestones graced the streets of Bethlehem, far from her Nazareth home; my stones lined the streets of medieval Paris, where my husband and I were living, farther still from any family or close friends. I can feel her aloneness.
There is no fighting the loss of control. It is too late for that now. I sense her acceptance of “what is”.
Her story was, of course, far more faith-stretching than mine. By faith, she accepted that the impossible would become possible as the Son of God became incarnate within her very womb. By faith, she accepted a life of ridicule and judgment as all manner of false conclusions were drawn about her. By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.
No matter how old we are or how long we have been trying to walk by faith, we all still have times when we feel like Mary. Alone. Vulnerable. Insignificant. Unqualified to accomplish a small thing, let alone a big thing. And how like our God to come in those moments and ask the big thing of us.
To say yes to God often involves saying no to myself. No to my in-the-moment need for retribution or recognition. To choose the Mary way is to choose the self-emptying way. It requires nothing less than the intentional surrendering of my will so that I may hear the voice of the Father calling to me.
It is the daily invitation to echo the cry of the God-Man, not my will but yours be done.
To embrace the mystery of Christmas is to accept the mystery of the unknown. It is to throw off the burden of needing control and easy answers and choosing instead to entrust our lives to God’s loving hands. It is to choose a life of outrageous faith amidst a world that says it will only believe once it truly understands. It is to declare with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.”
In this Advent season, we can all be carriers of the Christ child. We choose every day whom we will serve – the Lord and others, or ourselves. May we, like Mary, choose the mystery of a faith-filled life.
Bonnie O’Neil is a gifted writer, speaker, and Bible teacher. She lives in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, on the edge of bucolic Chester County, and is the mother of three mostly-raised children. She is passionate about helping others experience the God of love, finding a cure for type 1 diabetes, filling her senses with beauty, and exploring all things France.
I am a mother well-acquainted with the fears and anxieties of raising a son with a potentially life-threatening medical condition, and Bonnie’s wisdom, born of hard experience, has become a special gift to me. I can say of her what she has written here about Mary: “By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.” With Bonnie’s encouragement, I am doing the same.
Already a consistent blogger, Bonnie has plans to begin writing out the lessons she has learned during her years of raising a medically vulnerable child. I encourage you to sign up here to receive those upcoming blog posts by email.
Amy is another friend I owe to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.
We met rather accidentally when we found ourselves seated together in a large auditorium. Yet, it is a wonder we’d never met before. Our paths once crisscrossed through the English department of a Texas university and even at a local church.
Amy is smart and funny and she has excellent taste in books and music. I follow her playlists on Spotify, and I wish I could follow her library card, too.
But most importantly, Amy’s writing makes me uncomfortable. That might sound like criticism, but it is my highest praise. She notices things that must be noticed. She questions things that must be questioned. She knows what we must each learn; she knows that ease and comfort are not always our friends.
And Advent is not for the comfortable.
“When childbirth is normal, the pain is not a sign of injury; rather, as Sheila Kitzinger has said, it is ‘pain with a purpose.’ By acknowledging your pain, working in suggested ways with your body during childbirth, and remembering that the pain will soon end, you will be more likely to put the pain in perspective and to prevent it from overwhelming you…”
(Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn by Penny Simpkin)
72 hours after my water broke, 36 hours after the heavy labor had begun, 3 hours after I started pushing, I gave birth to my firstborn daughter, Rosemary. I had fought, alongside my husband, mother, midwife, sister-in-law, and a bevy of nurses, for her arrival, and when my screams finally quieted, after midnight, snow was falling outside the hospital.
She was born. My husband looked awestruck, said with wonderment, “She’s perfect.”
Weeks later, my body slowly healing, I was still wondering why it had taken so long. I’d labored for hours without seeing any progression: had I been doing something wrong?
My instincts had led me to fight the painful contractions; but upon re-reading the childbirth book, I found that I should have tried to accept each one. I should have welcomed the pain, used it.
As Christmas nears, I find myself thinking of Mary. Did she embrace the pain? Did her labor last for three days, like mine did? I wonder if she understood that her whole life with Jesus would be bookended by pain, from the pain of childbirth to the pain of the cross? I wonder if she understood that when her groaning finally fell silent, the whole earth felt a thrill of hope!
And then continued groaning for its full deliverance.
If I see another beautiful picture of flickering lights or another chocolate advent calendar, I think I’ll scream. This year, all the beauty and the longing and the quiet yearning just feel like cliches to me. I’m tired of waiting. I’m fed up with injustice and violence, death and disease. I can’t bear to see evil triumph again while we keep waiting under twinkle lights and shiny aluminum ornaments. The waiting doesn’t feel beautiful: it feels like those hours and hours of contractions, with no progression.
If these are the labor pains of God’s kingdom being born, what does it mean to embrace them? How can we lean into the pain, our hearts heavy with lament? How long, oh Lord, will these contractions last?
The pain is too much for us. In the prosperous West, we’ve found the epidural of materialism, and made ourselves comfortable for the duration.
But in doing so, what have we lost?
When we can’t feel the pain, we don’t realize how much we need deliverance. How much we depend on hope. Pain teaches us to hope. And somehow, to believe that, these thousands of years later, God is still at work, that the long labor will end, that the new kingdom will truly be born. Leaning into that pain, breathing through it, is how the kingdom will come on earth.
“Labor cannot be controlled,” Penny Simpkin warns. So, too, God’s new kingdom cannot be controlled; it is being born, all around us, whether we fight for it or against it, whether we can see it or not. The weary world will rejoice. God’s kingdom will be born on earth.
And we will be awestruck at its perfection.
Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors Guild at Taylor University. She writes about pop culture, church, books, food, intercultural communication, mothering, and education; and always, about what it might mean that God is making all things new. Follow her on twitter and read more at her blog.
I met Cara last spring at The Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. Already, I consider her a dear friend.
She is honest and eloquent. She writes about hard things, yet she always writes with hope and with joy.
She is sharing just such hard, honest words with us today, but she is, as always, sharing them with wisdom and with love. Reading Cara’s words, I feel that something precious is given to me. It is a gift like an easy yoke, a gift like a light burden.
The Lonely Season
It seems like a lesser pain somehow.
I am not sick, or truly bereaved. I have not loved and lost slowly, day by day. I am not hungry or in want of warmth or occupation. It is easy to think that my pain is less real. But it is with me, more days than not, following after me like a shadow.
I am lonely.
But there is something about Advent that helps me feel that I am not alone in my loneliness. Suddenly I am walking alongside a very young unmarried mother, pregnant and wrapped in mystery. I am keeping company with a woman who watched everyone around her raise children, while she remained barren.
Here in Advent, the lonely find each other, just like Mary and Elizabeth did.
I wonder, sometimes, if they knew each other well, or if their time together started out awkward and halting, like a song half forgotten. I wonder if each person wasn’t just a little jealous of the other: Mary of Elizabeth’s intact reputation, Elizabeth of Mary’s youth and ease of becoming pregnant.
What must people have thought about these two women in the same “stage in life” (as so many of my contemporaries like to say) but in such different life seasons?
I’ll bet they were lonely.
The circumstances leading up to Jesus and John’s births were not easy or smooth. I can imagine that Zechariah discovered the difficulty of moving through a world without speech, and Joseph lost friends and respect after failing to divorce Mary.
I like to take some time to think about the women in Jesus’ lineage during this season. I think about Ruth, who journeyed to a country that wasn’t hers with her mother-in-law, the only person she knew there. I think about Rahab, a prostitute by trade, in Jericho. Tamar, who endured the death of one husband and that of his brother, with no children to show for it, forced to take things into her own hands. I think of Bathsheba, who obeyed the words of the king and stood by as he sent her husband into battle and certain death, her unborn baby following quickly after.
These were women who were acquainted with grief and sorrow. I can only imagine that they knew loneliness, as well.
In fact, once I start looking, I find it hard to stop seeing them, women and men in scripture who were alone, or felt alone. Elijah in the wilderness telling God that he was the only one left. Hannah, crying out to God for a child. Jeremiah in the cistern. Hosea entering into a relationship with a wandering woman again and again.
I resonate with these stories, though mine is not so extreme. But like most people who make up the Advent narrative, I am hoping for what I can’t see. I am feeling around in the darkness, unsure of whether I will truly see light (not even sure I know what light looks like).
I am learning that Advent is a perfect fit for my lonely heart. Here, I can wail and lament. I can ask God why I’m still single, though I’ve prayed faithfully over a relationship since I was seven. I call out and ask Him why finding and maintaining friendships and community feel like trying to lift a sleeping whale. I can set my hope in His hands for a while, because I can’t bear the weight any longer.
I fall into step beside Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Joseph. Somehow, I feel less alone.
Cara Strickland is a writer, editor, and food critic in Spokane, Washington. She writes about singleness, food, feminism, and the way faith intersects life (among other things) on her blog Little Did She Know. Come say hi to her on Twitter. She likes making new friends.
I am ashamed to admit this, but when I began writing this blog three-and-a-half years ago, I did it primarily because I felt I had to. I sensed God tugging me toward becoming a writer. When I hit publish on my first blog post I viewed the act, primarily, as one of simple obedience.
In other words, I did it, but reluctantly and dragging all of my fear and doubt and general insecurity along for the ride.
Now, when I look back, I see God’s mercy and his provision. I see how he gave me the support and encouragement of online friendships through a long season of transition, a season when I had few opportunities for face-to-face community.
I am humbled, and I am grateful.
I remembered all this recently as I sat with my friend Danielle over homemade pizzas at my own dining-room table. I “met” Danielle in the comment section of my blog. She is a talented writer and artist, and we love so many of the same books. She lives only an hour or so away by car, but I would never have known her apart from this strange landscape we call the blogosphere.
It is is with a great deal of gratitude that I share these words from Danielle with you, today.
Prepare Him Room
Joy to the World! The Lord is come; Let earth receive her king; Let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing…”
The song is so familiar that I barely notice the lyrics. I stream it from iTunes while making dinner. But suddenly these words cause me to pause:
Let every heart prepare him room.
This December I am great with child.
My belly is swollen with a child that thumps and kicks and pulsates life. Three weeks out from the due date we are preparing room. The crib is set up; the clothes are washed and stacked in neat rows in a freshly painted white dresser. I’ve been here before. The preparing and waiting. The waiting and preparing.
During this season of advent and pregnancy my thoughts turn to Mary. What was her waiting and preparing like? She rode the back of a donkey the last days of her gestation, uncomfortable, with no hotel room awaiting her with clean sheets and a hot shower at the end of the journey. God was becoming incarnate in her womb. It took nine months just like any other baby, so mundane yet extraordinary. Mary must have marveled at it so many times.
The startling visit from the angel was just the first of many miracles during her months of pregnancy. First Joseph didn’t believe her, but then had his own mysterious visitation, which changed his mind. She visited her relative Elizabeth—barren her whole marriage—who shared her own amazing story of angel visits and an unexpected yet joyous pregnancy.
Mary experienced the incarnation of Christ in the most unique way possible within the Gospel story. Physically, she birthed Jesus Christ. Spiritually, she praised God with her beautiful Magnificat, saying in Luke 1:46-49, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She treasured and pondered the meaning of all the strange things that were happening to her: the conception and birth, the unexpected visit of shepherds, the “wise men” that showed up on her doorstep.
She believed in the incarnation. She held the incarnation in her own hands, had seen it with her own eyes. She herself became a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Mary teaches me that just like I’m preparing and waiting for the birth of my new baby, so I need to prepare and wait for the incarnation of Christ. Yes, as a historic event Christ has already come, but he’s coming too. He’s always coming, every year, every season, every day.
Everyday I can prepare room for Christ in my heart. I can make manifest the Holy Spirit at work inside my soul. Each moment of each day I have the opportunity to incarnate Christ to others.
That is what Advent reminds me to do. To prepare for Christ’s coming: past, present, and future. To be like Mary and prepare room for him in my heart.
Danielle Ayers Jones is a storyteller. Whether it’s with paper and pen or behind the lens, it’s one of the things she loves to do best. She writes regularly for Ungrind.org, iBelieve.com, StartMarriageRight.com, and FortheFamily.org. She also combines her love of writing and photography on her blog, www.danielleayersjones.com. It’s a space where she seeks to find beauty in the everyday, joy in hardship, and encouragement in unexpected places. Danielle lives in Maryland with her husband and three children and one on-the-way.
We have turned a corner. Can you feel it?
The word for this third week of Advent is Rejoice. It is a word associated most closely with Mary.
Here is a prayer for this, the third Sunday of Advent.
“Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
– from The Book of Common Prayer