The First Advent

Advent is a season. Many of us know its textbook definition: Advent is a time to prepare for and anxiously await the arrival of our Savior. As a rule, my husband and I both prefer it to Christmas Day. During Advent, Christians tend to discuss the first Christmas in very distinct parts: Gabriel visiting Mary, the birth of Jesus in the stable, the heavenly hosts’ announcement to the shepherds, and the visit of the Magi. Some congregations branch out, get creative, and toss in the stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth or a closer examination of Joseph’s situation to add something fresh and ‘new’. But this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the first Advent; the time in between Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the day she and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem. There are nine months in there that we read nothing about in Scripture. Is this not, in many ways, the First Advent?

Now, I’ve never been pregnant, so I am in no way qualified to comment on how desperately Mary JUST WANTED THAT BABY OUT.  What I can tell you, however, is that Mary had several reasons (yes, other than lower back pain or swollen ankles) for anticipating the birth of her son. How do I know this? Because she was a woman and a sinner.

I imagine Mary was a young girl in love with the local carpenter when Gabriel told her that she would have a child. As a newlywed myself, I can tell you she probably had her own ideas about what marriage and raising a family would look like. She also had a lot of friends and family telling her all kinds of horror stories, secret recipes, and plenty of advice about how to be a good wife and mother to a hardworking, Jewish husband. They had set expectations for her and she had probably set expectations for herself. If she’s anything like me, she set them a couple notches higher than her own family did. Because she was a good, Jewish girl from a good, Jewish family and she was READY.

And then there was Joseph. If he was anything like my husband, Joseph was good and ready to be married to his fiancé. He would have married her tomorrow if he could. Joseph probably had a good Jewish mother who had taught him how to honor his wife, how to discipline his children, and how to love, serve, and work for them as the Law required. Joseph probably had his own expectations for how this marriage and this family was going to look. He knew where they would live, how he would support them, and how they would celebrate holidays and Sabbaths: the exact same way his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had.

All of these expectations came crashing down the day Mary started to show in her belly.

We imagine her to be a glowing, pregnant, new bride, giddy with the thought of bearing the Savior into the world. But she wasn’t a bride. And she was definitely frustrated and hurt more often than she was giddy. All her dreams of her coming marriage were shattered. The traditional Jewish timeline for betrothal, all the plans for the wedding day, and, most importantly, her family’s blessing were gone. She was rejected from her family. She had disappointed them and, as a result, disappointed herself even more. That bar she had set for herself to be the perfect Jewish wife and mother had been knocked over by a God she had promised to obey.

She’d also disappointed Joseph. Yes, he was staying with her. But I guarantee you she asked herself probably every day, “Is he staying just because God told him to?”

When we as women feel we have done wrong, especially when we have disappointed those who love us, and when we become fully aware and knowledgeable of it, the guilt is very deep and very real. No matter how many times God may have reassured her that she was doing the right thing, I have it on good authority that Mary still felt like she had done something wrong most of the time. After the guilt would come shame. Why? Because Mary is a woman and the distance between guilt and shame is so very small for a woman. The shame would have probably driven her to the darkest place she had ever been in her young life. Guilt tells us we have done something wrong; shame tells us that we ARE something wrong. And after she survived the sharp, gut-wrenching despair of that shame, Mary would realize that she was feeling shameful about carrying the Son of God. How dare she? This realization would inaugurate an entirely new cycle of guilt and shame that covered her initial turmoil in wretched darkness. I have been in this cycle. It is hell.

No doubt, there was vibrant joy and moments of sweet, spiritual bliss that balanced the guilt-shame cycle. After all, we all know that pregnant women are prone to mood up-swings eventually and knowing you bear the Savior of the world is usually positive reinforcement. But even those moments of exciting anticipation could not, and very likely did not, hold any power against the wretchedness Mary felt when she remembered all she had lost, recalled the resentful, bitter person that loss had turned her into, and looked down at her swollen belly and thought, “When are you going to come?”

I have looked up at the sky and asked this question. “Father, when are you going to come? When are you going to fix me? I am a broken, shameful sinner. When are you going to do what only You can do and change my heart so that I will be good and right in your eyes?” I imagine Mary, amidst the bitter tumult of her guilt-shame cycle, would eventually find herself in this state of mind as well. My heart aches to imagine her plea, “My Son, when are you going to come save me? When are you going to heal my heart of this despair? When will you come to comfort me after being rejected by my family? When will you come assure me that I am a good wife and a good mother? When will you come to remind me that my dreams are not gone forever? When will you come to give me joy now that I have lost everything?”

Mary was not perfect. She was a woman. And as such, she compared herself to other women, she measured her value by their opinion, and when she disappointed them, she assumed that something was wrong with her. I have said many times that the deeply emotional and relational aspects of a woman’s heart are her special way of bearing God’s image in a fallen world. In other words, God created women to feel deeply because He feels deeply. Sin twisted those deep feelings into places of dark, bitter, resentment, but I believe at their core, they come from the heart of God Himself. Yes, I’m saying it: I believe God made women this way. I believe He made Mary this way. And I believe she desperately needed a Savior to rescue her from herself just as much as I do.

Especially during the last week of Advent, Christians who follow the liturgical calendar focus on God’s Love. Previous weeks celebrate Peace, Joy, and Hope. But the last week is Love. When I think of God’s ridiculous love for His children, oh how excited He must have been to send a Savior! I can’t help imagining God the Son anxiously awaiting His moment to come to Earth. Can’t you picture Him, standing by His Father’s Great White Throne, wiggling like a child at Disney Land and saying “Can I go yet, Dad?” Even knowing what He would endure on the cross, I imagine Him looking down on Mary His mother, watching her laugh, cry, sing, and despair her way through the First Advent. And with the all-consuming love and compassion that only a Savior can know, I hear Him whisper to her, “I’m coming! I’m coming to save you!”

He came for Mary His mother then, and He’s coming for us. THAT is what we are waiting for. That is what Advent is all about.