My wife is now eight months pregnant. Our first child is set to be born within a week of Christmas Day. One could certainly say that our state right now is one of eager expectation, and I would like to believe that this anticipation—which is what one must call that emotion that seems to turn hours into days and days into months as that blessed day grows slowly nearer—allows me to at least somewhat understand the expectation of Mary (or, more accurately, Joseph) as that first Christmas morning approached and the child grew steadily in that young womb.
But expectation is not always joyful; often expectation is more clearly defined by uncertainty.
In the case of Mary's cousin Elizabeth, whose own child was born perhaps just months earlier, the expectation was surely different. Mary was young and had not yet begun thinking of children; Elizabeth was old and barren, and all hope was seemingly lost. Elizabeth's life, like Mary’s and my own, was turned upside-down by a miracle—the miracle of conception, which, make no mistake, is as much a miracle if performed by human means as by the Holy Spirit. It is a miracle doubtless performed for good, but one that often leads to some disquiet, for human hearts are rarely prepared for the miraculous.
Just as I have lately experienced a deep, often overwhelming, uncertainty over the changes to come in my life, so, certainly, did Elizabeth, who must have wondered if, at her age, it was even safe to carry a child. Mary, whose blessing was surely accompanied by an uncertainty the likes of which I can't begin to imagine, must have felt honored to have been chosen, but quite offended at what God had done to her. Her village must have shunned her; she was almost certainly treated as a harlot despite her alleged purity, even as God, the very embodiment of righteousness, grew within her. Both of these expectant births had been announced angelically (the announcement of my own child’s conception, sadly, came through more traditional means), though how much comfort this truly allowed is difficult to know. It is hard to believe that either expectant mother was truly at peace about her situation.
Israel, meanwhile, was also expectant. She was awaiting her Messiah. Generations had come and gone since the promise was first made, just as generations came and went between God's promise to Abraham and the taking of the Promised Land, and yet, Peter could honestly write that "God is not slow in keeping His promises, as some count slowness...”. But what was supposed to be an age of anticipation had almost certainly turned into an age of apathy. Whether or not they truly believed in the coming Messiah—He who was to save Israel (though in a completely different sense than they understood)—there was little real hope left. Gone were the Assyrians and the Babylonians, in their place were the Romans. Year after year, decade after decade passed, and, while pockets of resistance still existed here and there, Stockholm Syndrome had surely taken effect and the situation was accepted. Maybe God would send his Messiah to save them... but who had the time to wait? Life went on.
If only all of Israel was of the same mind as old Simeon, who “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’”
We look at the days leading up to the first Christmas and we can almost imagine the tangibility of the anticipation. The time was ripe; the stars were, quite literally, aligned. Even King Herod—not even a real Jew—seemed to understand as much. And yet, apart from those few firm fixtures of faith like Simeon and Anna the Prophetess, the Jews were caught unprepared for the coming of Christ; but in this they are not uniquely guilty. They never have been. The sins of the Jews have always been the sins of all men.
Today ought to be an age just as rich in anticipation as that of Judea in the years before Christ; and yet no sooner, it seems, did Christ promise His Kingdom than we began to lose sight of it.
Today we continue, like an expectant mother and father, to experience both expectation and uncertainty. We are asked to wait in faith (though, it is worth remembering, God has never disappointed after asking others to wait in faith). We cannot read the mind of God, and His true heart has never been revealed to us. We cannot say for certain just how He will bring about His kingdom or what it will look like, just as the expectant parents simply cannot say how the coming of their child will change their lives. We know, in fact, that bringing about God’s Kingdom will be painful, for, as Paul wrote: “All of creation is groaning, as in the pains of childbirth.” But just as the pain of childbirth ends in the welcoming, at last, of a child, so to may we be sure that God will one day welcome us to His Kingdom.
God is not slow in keeping His promises.
In the weeks and days leading up to Christmas each year the anticipation of Christ’s birth is felt anew; it is felt, in fact, by those who don’t even believe in it, for it has conquered the world. The birth of Christ remains almost universally meaningful, even if, to many, it only means the selfish anticipation of gifts or the enjoyment of traditions. But as much as we ought to recall the anticipation of the coming of Christ, we also must understand that the age of anticipation is present rather than past, for just as those in Judea were anticipating the coming of the Messiah (and God, in time, fulfilled His promise), so we, in the 21st century, are told to anticipate the coming of His Kingdom. The coming of Christ did not mark the end of anticipation, but the beginning, and this anticipation ought to be renewed again and again as we enter into the season of advent.
At Christmas it is important to remember that we are not merely asked to remember something that is past—we are called to anticipate something that is yet to come! We are asked to expect, and to participate, in something that is even now being slowly revealed, unraveled through the history of the church as a scroll.
As I anticipate the birth of my own child next month, I pray that I can begin to understand more fully what it means to live, not just in expectation, but in eager expectation. We do not merely wait for the Kingdom—we long for it, as parched wanderers in the desert long for water. And we do so actively, not passively. It is no sin to feel uncertain about God’s promises—it is a human thing. And yet, we wait for it in eagerness.