Advent Hope: Small Comfort
While the Christmas story has through the ages delivered untold comfort, hope, and joy to the world, I have occasionally wondered why the men and women who first received the news weren’t completely bewildered as they learned the means by which salvation would come. Though questions did arise—Zechariah’s “How can I know?” and Mary’s “How can this be?” (Luke 1)—doesn’t it surprise us when the old priest, holding his newborn son, blesses God as if the promised salvation had already happened? When Mary, only three months pregnant, proclaims a seismic shift in the world’s order? When Simeon, ancient from waiting, is ready to rest in peace after bumping into the holy family, confident that he has held in his arms Israel’s Consolation and Glory?
Given the beleaguered suffering of God’s bruised world, shouldn’t we be astonished by the force of faith evidenced before anything really happened? Wouldn’t we expect at least one person to say something like, “We’ve waited since Eden for your promised delivery and you’re sending us a baby? How can a baby help?”
Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be
Not long ago, while posing my own “how can that help?” prayer, I remembered one particular Christmas from my adolescence. The long-anticipated day had begun before dawn, and by ten o'clock in the morning, my sisters and brother and I, due to little sleep and less food, were fading. (As with most children, presents were always priority and breakfast ancillary.) When I opened my last gift, an item for which I had hoped and longed for but had little expectation of receiving, I burst into tears. My confused parents, no doubt suspecting emerging hormones, didn’t yet know I was running a fever and that my ear throbbed painfully.
During that holiday season, Mom and Dad experienced their own distresses: Mom had been sick for most of her unexpected pregnancy, Dad was assisting a church in recovery from a near split, and the rental in which we were living had, without warning, been listed and was up for sale. In a matter of weeks, they would be moving their young family across town and, at the same time, welcoming a baby. While I was excited about having a new brother or sister, I was less so about the move since it meant changing schools halfway through my eighth-grade year. The prospect didn’t thrill me at all.
That Christmas Day was a pause in circumstances that would, very soon, bring significant change to each of us, but especially to my young mother, great with child.
As we cleared away strewn wrapping paper and ribbon from the living room floor, the pain in my ear grew and by evening had become a raging ache aspirin wouldn’t touch. Crying only increased the congestion and intensity, but I couldn’t stop. Worse, no doctor would be available until the next day.
Hope that Comes in the Night
Sometime during the night, my mother came into my bedroom and lay down next to me on the bed. Her very ripe abdomen rested against my back as she reached to cover my ear with her hand. Lying there together in the darkness, I became aware that her baby was moving and experienced to some extent the sensations she must have felt for several months. As the hours passed, the baby, hidden within, turned and kicked. Between my mother’s soothing words and tender touch and the sense of her baby’s soft, persistent activity, I was profoundly comforted.
The next morning, a doctor gave me a shot of penicillin, some pills for pain, and additional antibiotics. Though it would be many weeks before I could hear normally, the earache disappeared within a day or two. All was well once more—or at least as well as things could be for our family at that time.
The consolation that came to me, barely a teenager, during a painful night of waiting, deepens my appreciation for how God begins to deal with the long anguish of our human history. While we may at times feel bewildered by God’s ways and means, prophets, priests, and poets assure us that all is well and will be well. Wise and serious about redemption, God knows what it takes to heal and restore everything that is broken and make it all right.
That blessed work is even now kicking and moving and growing and waiting.
“ … we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:4-5).
Every now and then (or perhaps more often than that), it might be hard to find hope in this world. Even in the midst of celebrating the birth of Christ, we may struggle to see the silver lining. At the height of all the revelry, it may be difficult to find a solid foothold or a ledge to hang onto. And so, Jesus joins us in the center of it all, acknowledging the dark and dreary and not requiring us to “buck up” or “get a grip.” Instead, he lies in a manger, a star over his head, and silently invites us to look up. Christ is at work in the world, despite evidence to the contrary. In this series, Advent Hope, join us as together, we take a deep breath and dare to look up.