Nancy D. Becker is associate pastor of the Noroton Presbyterian church in Darien, Connecticut.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 23, 1983, p. 1072. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Something deep and universal in the human person needs hope in order to live, and many things in our society masquerade as hope but are not.
‘Do not be afraid, Mary . you will conceive in your womb and bear a son" (Luke 1:30-31].
But what did his birth mean for Mary -- one woman among the many generations who had awaited this birth? So often we concentrate on the conception and the birth, and forget about the time in-between -- those nine long months when Mary waited for the birth of her child. Mary trusted God enough to become his servant, and yet she must have wondered and worried about the child whom she did not yet know, but who grew within her.
What did Mary do during those nine months? What did she think about on the long nights when her back hurt and she couldn’t sleep? What were her hopes as she spun dreams of the future, and how do her hopes relate to our hopes this Advent so many years later?
Abraham Heschel once said, "We live not by needs alone, but by hopes for that which we do not even know how to utter. A person is what he hopes for." Something deep and universal in the human person needs hope in order to live, and many things in our society masquerade as hope but are not. One of these is a kind of cheerful and unrealistic optimism. Although there is nothing wrong with optimism, it does not fill that deep need which true hope fills.
Our hope as we await the coming of Christ is something profound -- something woven into the very fabric of our being and only vaguely expressible in the paradoxical continuum of the Christ who was and is and is to come.
Hope allows us already in the present to experience partially the expected fulfillment. This gives a continuity to present and future. That for which we hope is both here and not-yet-here, just as Mary’s child was already present in her womb as he was becoming what he would be. She experienced the child even as she hoped for it, and yet the child would not fully be until he was born.
Paul also speaks of hope in terms of birth when he says:
We know that up to the present time, all creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth. But it is not just creation alone which groans; we who have the Spirit as the first of God’s gifts also groan within ourselves as we wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free. For it is by hope that we are saved . . . if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience [Rom. 8:22-25].
In Raphael’s painting The Alba Madonna (in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Mary sits with the child Jesus on her lap. He is playing with a toy that has been made out of two sticks tied together in the form of a cross, while his mother looks beyond him, her eyes fixed pensively on that cross. The artist is reminding us that the hope of Israel and the child of Mary was born in order to die.
When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his coming death he told them that death is a kind of birth:
When a woman is about to give birth she is sad because her hour of suffering has come; but when the baby is born she forgets her suffering because she is happy that a baby has been born into the world. That is how it is with you; now you are sad, but I will see you again and your hearts will be filled with the kind of gladness that no one can take away from you [John 16:21-221.
What must birth seem like to babies? Their world is dark, but safe and secure. All of their needs are filled automatically; they are cushioned from shock and prevented from feeling pain. If they were given a choice, they would probably choose to stay right where they are, in the warm, watery environment which is familiar and safe to them.
But one day they feel their world caving in. The walls begin to push and crowd them into the birth canal and for the first time they feel pain and know fear. Then after the pain comes light, and children are received into the world by comforting hands and given into the loving care of their mothers and fathers, who have been waiting for them, expecting them, hoping for them.
Perhaps death is like that. Perhaps birth -- death -- life, -- the past -- present -- future are all twined together in the intricate web which is our hope. Our hope is in the one who gives life, takes away life, and gives new life. Our hope is that one day we will be born -- again -- into the very life of God.
But for now we await the coming of the Christ child, knowing even as we wait that Christ indeed has come. He lives within us, as he once lived within Mary, to give us hope.