FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: EXPECTING A BABY
The season of Advent presents several challenges to a pastor. The first is to tell the old, old story to people who have heard it over and over again as well as to those for whom it is only vaguely familiar. The preaching task is to retain and restore the mystery and wonder of the original story. We have the responsibility of liberating Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi from confinement as stained glass icons, freeing them to be real people again.
A second challenge is to remember that Christmas is a time of sharp emotional contrasts. Many people are happy and have little difficulty finding joy in the season, but December brings sadness to others. For those who are hurting, the coming of Christmas may be filled with dread, despair, bitterness, and anger. Some are freshly wounded; others carry deep scars from years gone by. For them, Christmas is anything but the season to be jolly. They suffer while others celebrate.
In forty-eight years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that there is no better way to present the message of hope and love that is at the heart of Christmas than through stories that parallel and perhaps merge with the original story.
This year, 2014, the story is unfolding right in my own family. Our daughter. Betsy, is pregnant with her second child. Her expected due date is early December. Betsy and her husband, Jason, have been preparing their Chicago home to receive a new child. Clare and I are a long way from Chicago, but we, too, have been making preparations. Clare is planning to be in the Windy City soon after the new arrival to help as only a mother and grandmother can. I am also planning to spend a few days in the frozen north as a grateful grandfather. Meanwhile we are thankful that Jason’s parents, Pam and Dave, are much closer in proximity to them than we are. Betsy has wonderful in-laws you are always willing to help.
Long ago and much further away, a young woman was startled by the news that she was pregnant. She had not had the first inkling, nor had she any reason to believe she was with child. She had saved herself for marriage. The attendant, dressed all in white, was neither a nurse nor a physician. The messenger who broke the news was the archangel Gabriel. The young woman was Mary of Nazareth.
Advent is Mary’s time. It is a season of expectancy for the young mother who lives in anticipation. But all of us, men and women alike, share in this pregnancy. This is a time of preparation for the arrival of a child, the nativity of Jesus. As surely as a young couple makes ready to receive a new child, we, too, must be ready for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.
When Clare and I got married, we knew that we wanted to have children.
We prayed that God would give us a child when the time was right. We became frustrated that God did not meet our schedule. We went for medical help and were told that it was improbable that we would ever have a child biologically. We pondered the possibility of adoption. We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when three months later she had a miscarriage. Again we were told that for us the possibility of having children was remote. We began to explore the possibility of adoption more seriously. After several months, Clare was again pregnant. The second pregnancy lasted longer. Our hearts were broken following a second miscarriage. I was angry. Clare was grieving.
On a walk into the woods with clenched fists and gritted teeth, I told God that I did not understand why some people had children they did not want and could care for, yet we could not have a child.
There was no flash of light, no audible voice, but a message came, clear as a bell, “Kirk, how can you expect to be a father until you learn to hurt?”
We initiated the long process of adoption with paperwork, home visits, and medical tests. Within weeks before we were to receive our adopted child, we discovered that Clare was again pregnant. The choice was difficult. Should we terminate adoption and risk another disappointment? Should we continue adoption proceedings with the possibility that we would have two infants just six months apart in age? Our decision to terminate adoption was another grief for us.
Clare carried our child full term. We were expecting our firstborn to arrive on December 18, 1970. As these things often go, the anticipated date came and went, but still no baby.
As Christmas approached, Clare and I waited in Louisville, realizing that we would not be with either of our families for the holidays. We could not travel to New Orleans, where her parents resided, or to Spartanburg, where my family lived. We exchanged gifts with our families by mail.
Christmas Eve arrived; our child had not. We enjoyed dinner together in our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both families to wish them Merry Christmas.
Just after we went to bed, Clare had her first contraction. Suddenly, we were wide awake! At 5:00 A.M. on Christmas morning, we were on the way to Norton Infirmary in downtown Louisville. A soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the dark.
At the hospital, I left Clare in labor and delivery and went to admissions to check her in as a patient. When I returned her contractions had stopped, and she was sound asleep. I waited. Then, about noon on Christmas Day she went into hard labor. We had taken Lamaze classes and thought we knew what to expect. In old cowboy movies, when a mother is giving birth, they send the husband out to boil water. Lamaze is something like that. It gives the father a coaching job to do while the mother works very hard.
At 3:26 P.M. on Christmas Day our first child, Michael Kirk Neely, was born. We were overjoyed. Finally, we had a baby, born on Christmas Day! Both sets of grandparents were elated when we telephoned to announce our son’s arrival.
The birth of a child is always a miracle.
The word Advent comes from Latin, meaning to come. Some Christian carols become prayers of anticipation: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus.”
In a spiritual sense, all Christians are pregnant with anticipation. Every year, we celebrate anew the birth of a child, not just any child, but the one born in Bethlehem. To hold a newborn in your arms is a reminder of just how precious and fragile a life is. To hold an infant in your arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that in the birth of Jesus, God made himself very vulnerable.
Each Christmas, we draw close to the manger and look into the face of this child. Look closely. Did you notice the resemblance? According to the Christian tradition this baby is the spitting image of his Father.