Fluffy polyester snow, a cardboard stable, and plastic people tell me that Christmas is coming. As kids, my sister and I would set out our family manger scene early in the Advent season. Each day our mouths watered as we moved our plastic shepherds, kings, and animals closer to the stable where Mary and Joseph knelt sans Jesus. The closer those figurines got to the Holy Parents, the closer we were to presents and our post-Christmas Eve Mass treats of chocolate-covered almonds.
It didn’t occur to me what might be going through the heads of the waiting Mary and Joseph figurines.
In May 2002 I put myself in Mary’s place, kneeling there in the straw. My husband and I learned in late spring that I was expecting our first baby, and when the due date was set for around January 6, the feast of the Three Kings (Epiphany), I immediately thought “Cool! I can be pregnant in Advent with Mary!” The world was full of hope and joy and comfort, the way I assumed Mary’s was before Jesus’ birth.
Our joy died as we learned later that our child’s tiny heart had stopped beating.
Devastated yet philosophical that our child went straight to the ranks of angels, we tried again. On September 29, the feast of the Archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, we once again saw those lovely double lines on the home pregnancy test. This time, the pregnancy was marked by a mixture of sorrow, dread that the other shoe would drop, and a hearty dose of hope that we would yet be free of grief and Advent would be a season of gestation and anticipation.
It was not to be, and on All Saints (November 1), we learned that our second angel had joined her sibling.
Some Christmas present
So what kind of Advent plan was that? What kind of waiting
and hoping was I supposed to do when I had given up two long-awaited children? What kind of comfort was there to be in the arrival of Jesus, in the singing at church of the Gloria (would my babies join the angel chorus?), in the gathering of shepherds, animals, and philosophers? Chocolate-covered almonds staved the pain, but only momentarily.
After a year, I can identify several graces of Advent 2002 that go to the heart of the season. First, pregnancy and miscarriage tend to ground a woman fully in her body. Not to the exclusion of other traits, but certainly the weird physical sensations and secretions, food needs or aversions, hormonal shifts and emotional turmoil they created kept me radically aware that we are, in the end, messy created human bodies with graced spirits.
Being hyper-aware of my physicality showed me that Mary not only experienced joy and comfort, but also pain and sadness, rejection and isolation, and, I would bet, some sense of abandonment when she realized she’d be giving birth in a barn far from home.
Unwrapping the booty
And yet she had hope. In the midst of the worst of circumstances—being initially unwed and pregnant, and then in full labor and post-partum hormone swings in a warm, dark place where animals ate, slept, and defecated—Mary must have had hope, a fundamental trust that all would be well and God’s promise would be kept.
With that in mind, I tried to live last Advent like Mary, in a fundamental trust that the pain and losses were not the last word. That perhaps instead of carrying a child, it was my turn to be carried, to be nurtured and held in a warm, dark place. My hope was not an excited, mouth-watering anticipation, but one of railing at God in pain, then being silent and exhausted in my grief, and waiting, looking through tears and chocolate for slivers of joy and relief.
Advent is to be a season of hope and waiting. I have found it to be both for myself and in the readings at Mass a season which is first dark and quiet; first messy and pain-ridden; first filled with need, before it is relieved with the arrival of a star that breaks through the night, with angel-song, with life, with comfort and joy, all of which precede and proclaim the news that God keeps His promises. That hope means patience and trust, and that waiting yields miraculous surprises.