It has been 10 Christmases since the first time I saw a negative pregnancy test. And in these years of waiting, longing, hoping, I have experienced every emotion you might imagine: Sadness, anger, grief, bitterness, jealousy, desperation, despair, frustration, shame, loneliness, the list goes on.
It hit me the other day as I was thinking about Christmas how the barren woman holds such imagery for the nation of Israel in the years leading up to the coming of the Christ. The Hebrew people held this promise in their hearts for a messiah to come, but had zero idea of when it would come to pass. And they waited. The longing was tangible. The need was dire. The waiting was long.
I know the feeling. Even this week leading up to Christmas I had the “Maybe…. what if it's this time….” in my heart again. It’s been there over 100 times. I start imagining what it would be like to make an announcement. I start painting a canvas with the look on my husband’s face. All too soon the tiny, little, flickering candle light of hope in the dark forest of probability was snuffed out again.
I used to wander in the dark forest in these moments. I used to grope through the woods with heaving sobs, blinded by the unbearable heaviness of the unknown. Where am I? How did I get here? Will I ever find a way out? Now I just curl up into a ball and fall peacefully asleep. Not because I have fewer questions, but because I’ve been here so many years and I’ve come to realize I’m not actually in the dark alone. God is with us. Emmanuel.
And sometimes we forget an entire nation felt this way...for centuries. When is our Messiah coming? In the same way a barren woman can’t explain the power of the longing and why it is so painful, there probably aren’t appropriate words to express the desperation. It had been so long ago that the promise was made. Surely every person faced doubt, wondering about these prophecies, and trying to imagine what this glorious appearing would look like. Generation after generation spoke of these days, hoping and praying it would be in their time. But generation after generation passed away with the hopes for Messiah left on their lips for the living.
Let’s not forget that it was not just that they waited, it was how. In these 500 years from the first specific prophecies of Messiah, those that survived the complete destruction of their nation (including Jerusalem and the temple) lived in a foreign land during the Babylonian exile. They came home 70 years later with permission from Persia, rebuilt their temple, rebuilt their walls, went through the fall of Persia and were handed off to the Greeks (who were terrible). They were attacked by Syria, fought for their own independence, and finally (temporarily) reigned over their own country once more. It didn’t last super long, because they began to suffer poor leadership internally and ultimately fell into the hands of mighty Rome.
Pax Romana. They came promising peace and they brought death, idolatry, immorality, and intolerably difficult economic problems. A man worked and wearied himself to the bone to provide for his family, only to face tax extortion, heavily regulated trade, and a tiny chance of ever comfortably distancing himself from the poverty line. They were subject to “kings” that were not even their own people and Roman governors who could care less about the One True God. Their leaders consistently disregarded their laws and customs while lining their pockets with taxes. They had been, were, and it seemed always would be desperate. Waiting. Longing. Hoping. And without any real idea of when HE would come.
And then one day, out of the blue, a promise comes for Elizabeth. She is barren. She is old. She probably no longer dwells on this loss, although she still feels the shame and the reproach. In fact, when the angel appears to Zechariah, he laughs. They must have decided long ago that this would not, will not, could not happen for them.
But it is the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving against all odds that is actually Mary’s positive pregnancy test. Think about it. The angel tells Mary what is about to happen to her and that her relative, Elizabeth, is pregnant. This is all humanly impossible. All of it. She’s a virgin and Elizabeth is a senior adult. So, she rushes to Elizabeth’s house. Can you imagine her eyes openly staring at the pregnant belly of her dear, elderly relative? This impossibility is now the only tangible evidence she has that what she saw and heard during those heart-racing moments conversing with a being not from this world was actually true. It really could only be from God himself. Elizabeth’s barrenness-turned-pregnancy was Mary's proof that she was already carrying the Messiah.
A nation has waited for centuries and a Messiah is finally on the way, but still they must wait. He is born, but the king is jealous of his power. He has even killed off his own wife and three of his sons out of fear of usurpers. He is crazed with paranoia. He is determined to destroy all who would lay claim to his throne. Even hearing rumors of a baby Messiah and he murders an entire town’s infants. But before all this, Mary and Joseph had a baby shower with shepherds, angels and wise men.
I used to be confused by the mix, but I think I understand now. If you look at it politically, it makes sense. What if the lowly shepherds were invited because they had no political power? Their testimony and excited words in town would not necessarily make waves and they were no threat, but they mattered to the heart of their God and Father. The angels were there because the Lord and Savior deserved a choir, a party, a banquet of light and glory, and a unified heaven showing earth they were seeing and hearing right. “Glory to God in the highest.”
And scholars believe it was actually a couple of years later that the wise men came. They were foreigners, travelers, and politically speaking, they had no skin in the game. They just saw what they saw and were compelled to come.
So with a protective word from an angel, off the family goes to Egypt. The Savior and Messiah of Israel who has FINALLY come is still a young child and is living in a foreign land until the evil king is dead. More years. More waiting. Even after they come home, he serves in the family’s carpentry business in Galilee (ie. w a bunch of rednecks). Until decades later he’s in Cana for a wedding and turns water into wine. Game on.
It. Took. So. Long. All of it.
I have several friends who suffered infertility for years. Many, many, many years. In the past few months, several of them were able to announce their first pregnancies. Finally!!! One of them is very close to me. I have looked into her eyes and seen tears of grief finally become tears of joy and almost disbelief. Is it really happening? Can something this good really be true? Can something I’ve wanted this bad finally be real?
Yes. Joy has come.
I feel it for all of them, and especially for her, my dear friend, with such incredible gratefulness that the Lord has answered their prayers. I still wonder what those words and feelings would taste like coming out of my mouth. I don’t think I could even stand on both feet after this many years. I think I would fall on my face.
And all of this has made me see Christmas differently. There is a hymn that has new power for me:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear…
Let’s not forget how desperate they were. Let’s not forget how long 500 years was to wait and wonder. Let’s not forget the generations that passed with the hope of the Messiah still to come. There was so much waiting without many answers. I know those questions so deeply and so personally. When? How? Is it even possible? An entire nation (really an entire world) needing this baby to come; waiting and longing like a barren woman. A woman like me.
The story of our Christ is powerful and was before He ever came. Waiting produces heartache and questions, but also depth and beauty. We have a beautiful story. Jesus is our beautiful story. And somehow I still believe for myself, there is hope in the waiting.