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EXPECTING A BABY: The First Sunday of Advent

November 28, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, 189 North Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29301, (864) 583-1628

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 baby Jesus, the Angels, the shepherds, and the Magi from confinement as stained-glass icons in a cathedral window, freeing them to be real people again.

The Holy Family was displaced. They were homeless travelers to Bethlehem and refugees in Egypt.  Mary was probably a teenager. Her first labor was intense, with sweat and blood. Joseph was a faithfully Jew, a carpenter by trade, now pressed into the role of a midwife.   The shepherds were awestruck that night when all heaven broke loose. The Magi were stargazers weary from their long journey. We sing about the baby as if he were not a child. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Really? I have been around enough newborns to know that healthy babies cry when they are hungry and when their swaddling clothes need changing. 

A second challenge for a pastor is to remember that Advent 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 fifty-four 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 Advent than through stories that parallel and perhaps merge with the original story. 

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 Christians, 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 prepared for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.

When Clare and I were 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 our own biological child.  We pondered the possibility of adoption.  We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when she had a miscarriage three months later.  Again, we were told that for us, the probability 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 not 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.  When we were finally approved, we prepared a nursery, and we waited. 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 yet 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 at our home in Louisville, Kentucky, 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 at our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both of our 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. Soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the darkness.

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. When a mother gives birth in old cowboy movies, 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! And, he was born on Christmas! 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.”

This year, the season of Advent begins on Sunday, November 29, 2020.  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 life is.  To cradle an infant in your arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that, in the birth of Jesus, God made himself very vulnerable. 

Because of the COVID-19 virus, this Christmas season promises to be different for many of us. The Gospel account makes it clear that Mary and Joseph experienced the birth of their child in difficult circumstances. They certainly were in isolation. They were confined to a stable out back, no less. 

Each Christmas, we draw close to the manger and gaze into the face of this child.  Look closely.  Did you notice the resemblance?  According to Christian tradition, this baby is the spitting image of his Father in heaven.

And so, we who are Christians kneel with shepherds and Magi. “O come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.”

Blessed Advent!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

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