What To Expect When You’re Expecting – An Advent Reflection in Four Movements

First Movement: A Pregnant Pause

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and with your captive children dwell.

Give comfort to all exiles here,

and to the aching heart bid cheer.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come within as Love to dwell.

For many years, I was a volunteer at the local library, and each year we would organize a huge book sale. At the start, we just set out boxes of books, but then we got the idea of sorting books by genres – and collecting stacks of the individual titles that seemed to come in by the dozens, from books like The DaVinci Code, which we think every single person in Saratoga County bought and wanted to discard, to huge stacks of John Grisham and Tom Clancy thrillers. Our huge stacks were typically fiction – except for one book: What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

This book is quite handy for first-time expectant mothers. It includes advice on the physical and emotional changes, tells you what is going on in the baby’s development, nutritional advice, even sexuality and advice for fathers-to-be. I don’t know a woman in the last fifteen years who wasn’t given a copy when they announced their pregnancy, usually by a doting mother or best friend.

But once you’ve been through it, they say, you don’t need the book anymore, so off to the library book sale it goes…onto the pile with the dozens of other copies, alongside the piles of Brown, Grisham, and Clancy.

But it is handy to know what to expect when you’re expecting. Before this book, of course, this information was passed down in the oral tradition from mother to daughter… and has been since the dawn of time.

But what of women who don’t have mothers to advise them? Or women who are in situations that prevent them from talking to a mother?

Imagine you are a woman named Elizabeth. Your husband, Zechariah, is a priest in Nazareth, in the first century of the Common Era. By current standards, you are old – although you are probably only in your thirties. But you are old, and you have been told you are barren, so you have no children – much to the distress of your husband, whose status relies on family.

And one day, you discover that you are pregnant. And because there is little in the way of we would call obstetrics, this conception seems like a miracle. But your mother has already died, so there’s no one to talk to. There is no one to tell you what to expect.

Now imagine you are Mary – Elizabeth’s cousin, whose pregnancy you celebrate. In fact, given Zechariah’s standing as a priest, you declare Elizabeth to be blessed among women. Now it is true that you are young – barely a teenager…and you have recently been betrothed to a man named Joseph, who definitely older than you, perhaps of some standing as a merchant in this same village of Nazareth. You were brought up to follow the laws of the Torah, and your behavior – sexual and otherwise – is tightly regulated, especially before marriage.

Yet things don’t go according to plan, and you find yourself pregnant.

According to the laws, you should be stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage – whether it was consensual, or sexual abuse, or rape. You are fearful. You are nervous. You are certain there will be shame brought upon your family.

And you have no one to turn to in your shame. No one to tell you what to expect.

Now of course the religious leaders – from your time, and certainly in the future – frame this conception too as a miracle. Elizabeth’s son, who we know as John the Baptist, is called a prophet. Mary’s son, who we know as Jesus of Nazareth, is called by some a prophet, some a teacher, some a messiah.

But when Elizabeth and Mary were pregnant, they had no idea who these children would be. In fact, it is only long after their deaths, when the writer of the gospel of Luke connects the heroic birth narratives familiar in the ancient world to these two figures, that we get the visitation of the angel Gabriel, the miraculous conceptions, and the esteemed status of these two mothers.

No, Elizabeth and Mary were simply waiting for their children to be born – hoping, like every expectant mother, they’d be healthy, safe, successful, and loved. Hoping, like every expectant mother, that their children would bring light and love to their lives and the lives of those around them.

And at the core, this is what this season of Advent is about. It is a time of waiting … waiting for the changes that come as new life grows… waiting for something new to change us… waiting simply for a new birth… and a new light to shine to bring love to all.

 

*Spirit of Love,

Come in.

For there is much in our lives keeping you out.

Our own concerns consume us and turn us inward;

Grant us patience.

Give us the eyes of love.

Open us to the needs of others.

Fill us with the love of the season.

 

Second Movement: How long, O Lord, How long?

O come, you Splendor very bright,

as joy that never yields to might.

O come, and turn all hearts to peace,

that greed and war at last shall cease.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come within as Truth to dwell.

One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a thirsty crow, who spotted a pitcher of water…but whose beak wasn’t long enough to get into reach the water. So he started dropping pebbles into the pitcher, and eventually the water began to rise.

That tale is often told to illustrate perseverance.

But what if the water is our belief that, as Theodore Parker says, “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice” … but what if the pebbles, which look like boulders to us, are so small the water doesn’t seem to rise? Even when these pebbles of shocking injustice are not dropping one by one but by handfuls? Just as we came to terms with the reality of no indictment for Michael Brown’s killer, another pebble drops in the pitcher in the form of no indictment for Eric Garner’s killer. And we are left wondering how many more pebbles can our pitcher take before justice rises to the top? How do we make sense, in this season of waiting, of the need to wait?

Because we are waiting. We long for justice in our justice system and safety on our streets – for everyone, including unarmed black men and boys who seem to be targets for violence and discrimination. We long for accountability and responsibility from the very people who demand our respect, sometimes violently. We long for a day when every single American would rise up and say “enough is enough; we must end this violence!” Oh how we wait.

Waiting for the long moral arc of the universe can be discouraging and demoralizing. It can bring despair, paralysis, denial. Waiting can be exhausting. We cry out….

We wait for your coming,

We wait for new life,

We wait in our despairing,

We wait through the strife.

But how long? How long?

How much longer must we wait?

How long? How long?

How much longer must we wait?

Lord, we are forsaken,

We yearn to be free,

Sam said, ‘change is gonna come’

But right now we can’t breathe.

How long? How long?

How much longer must we wait?

How long? How long?

How much longer can we wait?

But during this Advent season we are called to wait differently. As Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken writes at the Blue Boat Home Blog, we are called to active, hopeful waiting.

She reminds us to wait like Mary, a pregnant teenager in an occupied territory who still knows she is sacred. “If you too, know oppression in our current society, remember how very sacred you are. Remember that you are co-creating divinity itself with your life. Let your soul magnify the divine, who would scatter the proud, bring down the mighty and fill the hungry with good things.”

Second, she reminds us to wait like Joseph, “who stands by his pregnant fiancée when his society tells him she is wrong, unrespectable, immoral …and when he himself is confused. We should think carefully about the judgments we make and hear. We must learn to value justice and righteous anger more than respectability and peace. We must push ourselves to dialogue with others, and find a way to stand with those who are bringing love into this world, even if they are not doing it exactly the way we’d like.”

And in our waiting, we must listen and be open to the truth of other people’s experiences – the violence and condemnation, the fear and the struggle. We cannot step into another’s shoes and know their experience, but we can practice radical empathy as best we know how.

And so in this way, we wait. We aren’t standing still – no, we keep on moving forward. We actively wait for a new creation, a beloved community, a way of living into relationship that defies the systems that destroy lives in our country and our world. We wait in this time of Advent.

 

*Spirit of Truth,

Come in.

For in our world and in our selves there is conflict.

Too many lives form the battleground of the struggle for justice and power.

Grant us patience as we keep on moving forward, never turning back.

Give us a common dream.

Fill us with peace.

Fill us with the truth of this season.

 

Third Movement: Any Minute Now

O come, you Dayspring, come and cheer

our spirits by your presence here.

And dawn in every broken soul

as vision that can see the whole.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come within as Light to dwell.

In the film Michael, there is a moment when Michael, an archangel played by John Travolta, has opportunity to brag a little about the influence he has had on humanity. “I invented standing in line,” he insists. “Before that everybody just gathered around. It was all a big mess so I said why don’t we just make a line?” When asked what the line was for, he replies, “to get in.”

We are good at waiting. We wait for the bus… for the check to arrive… for the wound to heal… for the work day to end… for the call from a loved one… for a good diagnosis.

We wait to start things… “as soon as I finish my degree”… “after I get a raise”…“As soon as I meet someone”… “After I lose weight”… “Once I can move my arm again”… “when the death of my partner doesn’t feel so sharp”… “as soon as this depression lifts”…

It seems we are always waiting…

Any minute now, my ship is coming in

I keep checking the horizon

And I’ll stand on the bow, feel the waves come crashin’

Come crashing down, down, down, on me

 

And you say, be still my love,

open up your heart, let the light shine in

Don’t you understand, I already have a plan?

I’m waiting for my real life to begin.

 

As I woke today, suddenly nothing happened

But in my dreams I slew the dragon

Down this beaten path, and up this cobbled lane

Walking in my own footsteps once again

 

And you say, just be here now,

forget about the past, the mask is wearing thin

Let me throw one more dice, I know that I can win

I’m waiting for my real life to begin

 

Any minute now, my ship is coming in

I keep checking the horizon

And I’ll check my machine – there’s sure to be that call

Gonna happen soon, soon…oh so very soon

It’s just that times are lean

 

And you say, be still my love

Open up your heart and let the light shine in

Don’t you understand, I already have a plan

I’m waiting for my real life to begin

 

On a clear day, I can see, see a very long way.

On a clear day, I can see……… see a very long way.

 

Ah. So… maybe we need to stop waiting, and simply be here now. And yet it seems being present is also waiting. So what happens in the meantime? After all, the meantime can be a mean time – full of anxiety and worry.

Yet if we live in the meantime, waiting for our real lives to begin, we cease being present. In his bestselling book The Power of Now, Ekhart Tolle says we should

Realize deeply that the present moment is all you will ever have. Make now the primary focus of your life. Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the now, have your dwelling place in the now and pay brief visits to the past and future. Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment.

Easier said than done, I know. Frustratingly so, especially since our culture is driven by “just as soons.” After all, we are immersed in an ego-driven, over-hyped, ambition-led society, heightened by a season that pushes us to buy more, eat more, do more, be more. We are led to believe that we are incomplete as we wrestle with our own dark pains, sorrows, and troubles. Tolle points out that this sense of not being whole “manifests as the unsettling and constant feeling of not being worthy or good enough.” We then enter a spiraling pattern of gratifying that need to feel worthy, to feel complete – and as soon as we do that, there’s more holes to fill. Sometimes we try to fill the holes we see in ourselves with material objects, sometimes with degrees, sometimes with relationships. We are always striving for something more, and we measure the size of those holes to determine our self-worth. Whether we think we need more knowledge, more skill, more love, more toys, or more experiences, it never seems to end.

Advent becomes even more important now – because in the midst of this frenetic season of more, Advent asks us to stop, be still, and give thanks. It asks us to be present, and wait for the light to return. And it asks us to be present with – and for – each other. Advent asks us to be a light for one another.

I know that may seem difficult when we have our own pains, sorrows, and troubles to bear. And it seems almost offensive, when our own inner light is diminished by the darkness of pain, to be poked and prodded with overly cheerful Christmas songs, an abundance of bright decorations, and sentimental – almost sticky-sweet – tv specials and movies.

How can we be light for others when we cannot seem to find it ourselves? How can we stop trying to fill the holes we perceive in the meantime and simply be present with and for others?

I’m reminded of the story of Sam:

One day, Sam’s walking along and falls into a deep, dark hole. He tries and tries, but can’t get out. He shouts and shouts, but no one hears him.

Finally a doctor walks by, sees Sam, and peers into the hole. “Hey Doc, I’ve fallen down this hole. Can ya help me out?” Doctor writes a prescription and throws it down the hole.

A little while later, a priest walks by, sees Sam, and peers into the hole. “Hey Father, I’ve fallen down this hole. Can ya help me out?” The priest says a prayer and tosses rosary beads into the hole.

Sam is about to give up when an old friend comes by. “Hey Joe, I’ve fallen down this hole. Can ya help me out?” Joe jumps into the hole.

“Joe! What are ya, nuts? Now we’re both stuck down here.”

“I know,” says Joe. “But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

We can be each other’s light, in this time of waiting. We can share our own stories of loss, fear, and struggle, our own stories of pains, sorrows, and troubles, and bring comfort and light to those who need it. We may not know how our own darkness can bring light to others, but in this time of waiting for the light to come, we can hear the cries of others who are lost in the darkness, jump into the hole and together, find the way out.

 

*Spirit of Light,

Come in.

For there is much in our lives closing our eyes to the possible.

Pressure mounts with the countdown…so many things to do.

The season casts long shadows on regrets and things left undone.

The days remind us of our pains and troubles.

Grant us patience.

Fill us with wonder and anticipation.

Fill us with the light of this season.

 

Fourth Movement: When Hope Is Hard to Find

O come, you Wisdom from on high,

from depths that hide within a sigh,

to temper knowledge with our care,

to render every act a prayer.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come within as Hope to dwell.

 

As we have seen, waiting takes on many forms – excitement and anticipation, anxiety and nervousness, action and presence, anger and paralyzing frustration, and for some… Dread.

Yet Advent teaches us over and over again to stop, be still, and give thanks. This season of relative darkness asks us to be present in the moment… not throwing up our hands in frustration, not making endless lists, not dreading awkward family interactions, not feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of the season, not thinking ahead to all the things you’re putting off, not dwelling in regrets and inadequacies… But simply being present to the moment.

One way we can wait in these anxious times is through meditation… being present to the still small voice within, being present to the darkness. Let us enter a time of meditation – beginning with these words:

**For the darkness of waiting

Of not knowing what is to come

Of staying ready and quiet and attentive,

We give thanks.

For the darkness of staying silent

For the terror of having nothing to say

And for the greater terror

Of needing to say nothing,

We give thanks.

For the darkness of loving

In which it is safe to surrender

To let go of our self-protection

And to stop holding back our desire,

We give thanks.

For the darkness of choosing

When to speak, and act, and change,

And we cannot know what we have set in motion,

But we still have to take the risk,

We give thanks.

For the darkness of hoping

In a world that longs for hope,

For the wrestling and laboring of all creation,

For wholeness and justice and freedom,

We give thanks.

 

When we are present and active in our waiting, we feel a sense of hope… that our pains, sorrows, and troubles will ease… that the moral arc of the universe will bend toward justice… that the baby will be born… that life will begin anew… that the light will come again. In the waiting, there is hope.

*Spirit of Hope,

                Come in.

For the days darken, and we sometimes wonder if our work is for naught.

Wounded souls in a wounded world, we need you.

Grant us patience.

Fill us with promise and potential.

Fill us with joyous anticipation of possibility.

Fill us with the hope of this season.

 

 

*Modified from an Advent Prayer by Linda Hoddy

**Adapted from “For the Darkness” – an Anglican litany prayed in Canterbury Cathedral on April 18, 1986; found in Woman Prayers (edited by Mary Ford-Grabowsky)

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