O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Today is Advent, and Bethlehem’s people are feeling contractions. How long have we been waiting for this very moment, and yet every shudder of pain hits us with an icy shock of surprise? Deep and mysterious, they start in our guts and roll outward, tightening every muscle in our bodies, focusing our concentration for those few vital seconds. Some of them stop us in our tracks, some of them double us over, some of them are so clutching, so possessing, so overtaking that we have to be reminded simply to breathe. The people of Bhopal, India mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most horrific industrial disaster the world has ever seen, wearing its memory in their broken bodies, their webbed fingers, their gaunt, emaciated faces, their blank, blind eyes. A young couple gives birth to their first-born daughter only to discover that she is not able to breathe normally and a few days later must decide to take her off of life-support machines. The city of Vancouver puts on a six billion-dollar black tie and tails to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, hoping the world will ignore its disheveled piles of homeless people swept neatly off the streets. The rape of a four-year-old girl by her father is videotaped by her mother and sold on the child pornography market.
We are citizens of Bethlehem, but our little town is not still; our sleep is not dreamless, nor is it deep, interrupted as it is by contraction after contraction. We are caught in a nightmare that twists, flares, and fades, one unthinkable act following another. Typhoons rage on our shores, hurricanes batter our shingles, and droughts choke and clog our throats with dust. Our women are kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Our children are shackled by their shackled parents to brick-making factories and forced to use their tiny fingers to roll cheap cigarettes. Addictions, like parasites, gnaw away at us until we have become only hollow shells of ourselves, memories of human beings. Cancers have invaded us; AIDS has decimated us. We ache and we ache and we ache, and the pain rolls into us, drenching us. Soaked to the skin with misery we gasp at the stars, and the stars are high and far and cold and so dreadfully silent.
Fear is cheap in Bethlehem, and easy to get, for our streets are dark and filled with angry shadows. Fear is in the air we breathe and in the water we drink. We are afraid of the stranger at the park, the stranger in the elevator, the stranger next door. We wash our hands with antibacterial soap and sprinkle them with holy antiseptic gel and cover our faces with surgical masks. We lock up our churches and alarm our homes; we build fences around our gardens and we walk with our eyes on the ground. We brandish our pistols and scream at our enemies, we invade, we manipulate, we lecture, we attack. Fear is cheap, and hope is very, very expensive, so we mortgage ourselves for a taste of it. We do our best to buy it with our shiny credit cards and sell it to our friends. We wrap it up in bright red and green paper and give it to our children, only to find it broken and mangled a few hours later. We wear it, cut out of leather and silk and organic cotton; we spray it on our bodies; we rub it into our hair. Hope smells like a new BMW, looks like a pillared brick house on a suburban cul-de-sac, and tastes like a $500-dollar-a-plate dinner, sounds like a letter of acceptance from a prestigious preparatory school, and feels like washboard abs, so we beg, borrow, and steal to get it.
We are Bethlehem’s people, and somewhere, lost in our holiday crowds, is a young girl who knows fear and poverty and cold, whose new husband is all but powerless to help her through these next crucial few hours, whose swollen body is clutched in a fierce, commanding, contracting grasp. We are Bethlehem, and deep within us, someone is being born.
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Romans 8:22-25, The Message
In my experience, the last few weeks are the worst. The first trimester’s nausea, the second trimester’s weight gain, the third trimester’s exhaustion and all-around clumsy bulkiness, all pale in comparison with the agony of pregnancy’s last few weeks of waiting. For weeks and months I’ve been waiting for The End, which is really, of course, The Beginning, and there are moments when it seems it will never come. The nursery is decorated, snowy-white onesies are carefully folded, the mobile is hung, the bag for the hospital is packed, and now all I can do is wait. I am burdened, literally weighed down with the knowledge that some thing is about to happen, but how and when remain a tantalizing mystery. As much as I dread it, I find myself praying for pain, clinging onto each Braxton Hicks contraction, each cramping twinge, as a sign that there really will be light at the end of this dark tunnel. Some One is coming, and this waiting, this Advent time, has all of the dark, frustrating tension and holy beauty of a dissonant chord that must be held and held and held before it can seamlessly melt into resolution.
When the contractions finally do begin to come, there is a kind of relief; this pain means that there is something to do, even if it is just walking up and down the street or driving to the hospital. This pain also means focus: there is a child to be delivered, a baby to be born. Nothing else matters. As contractions build, the pain can become so gripping, so all-encompassing that even to breathe is an effort of memory and discipline. And yet, the remarkable thing is that, in those minutes between contractions, I feel almost normal, pretty good even. Except for my husband with the stopwatch sitting next to me, or the monitors beeping above my head, I might almost forget that another one is coming. I can talk about the weather or do a crossword puzzle or watch television until I feel my body starting to tense again, the contraction beginning to build, and then everything else must stop and the pain focuses my mind like a laser beam on my body.
But ultimately it isn’t enough that I simply endure the pain, that I grit my teeth and be a stoic bystander to this thing that is happening. Eventually the time comes when I must push. I must engage in the process if this child is ever to be born.
Sometimes all that is required is one simple nudge, and out she comes, slippery and smooth as a baby seal. Sometimes, pushing means hours and hours of plain, hard work. I and the contraction work together to bring the baby into the birth canal, right up to the threshold between in and out, born and unborn, and then together, with a searing splitting and tearing, I must push her out. Advent must end; Christmas Day must come.
Sometimes, we people of Bethlehem must simply wait. Our city is one of Advent, and its citizens a people of expectancy, of waiting. We are a people enlarged by our waiting, and the contractions, when they come, must be patiently endured. Sometimes it is enough to merely pay attention to the pain, to notice it in the world around and within us, to speak the truth that it is real and to feel it reverberating through our bodies. Sometimes we must simply weather the birth pangs, see them, acknowledge them, grieve for them. Perhaps sometimes all we need is a reminder that we are dust, a momento mori, or a chance to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.
But Bethlehem is also a city of Christmas Day. And sometimes its people have to push.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Today is Christmas Day, and in Bethlehem the moment has come to push, and so I am vacuuming. When faced with a world in the grip of pain, a creation that is groaning and gasping, contractions that seem to roll and roll and never end, what am I, a harried young mother of three, to do? The way I see it, I have three options. I can do my best to ignore it, to dull the pain with lots of time on Facebook or watching TV or running from playgroup to Bible study to the mall. Or I can allow the pain to cripple me, curl me into a tiny grey ball of depression, huddle me on the couch under a blanket of helplessness and render me completely inactive. Or, I can push. And how can I push? How can I rear back and kick at the darkness? How is it that Christ will be born in me? Some day I may picket or write a series of angry letters. Some day I may chain myself to the door of city hall or camp out with the hippies in the Arbutus grove destined for demolition. There may come a day for grand actions, for defiant gestures. There may come a day for marching, for being thrown in jail, for hoisting a megaphone and screaming the truth as loudly as I can. But today, I will be vacuuming.
I’m sure that the darkness would be delighted if I allowed my acedia, my own sense of helplessness and frustration, to lull me into inaction and sloth. It is so easy for me to ignore the crumbs on the floor and the dust bunnies under the beds with the convenient and frequent excuse that, “I need to be easy on myself.” But not today. Today, I will push. Today, I can feel strength in my arm muscles as I move this noisy machine over my dirty carpet, taking the time to clean in every corner and lug it up and down the steps. This is not a self-propelled vacuum, so I am pushing hard and with purpose. I am vacuuming because that is what I can do today. Today, I will bring dinner to a tired friend who needs a break. Today, I will take my own canvas bags to the grocery store and today I will not whine about the cost of milk or gas, nor will I fear the price of food. Today, I will close my ears when my culture tells me I have to buy things to be happy. Today, I will play Candy Land with my children. Today, I will not allow the grey skies to weigh down on me, or the endless rain to chill my bones. Today, I will defy the mid-afternoon darkness with a lit candle in my kitchen. Today is Christmas Day in Bethlehem, and today, Jesus is born.
Today, my clean house has nothing to do with my Dutch Reformed Protestant work ethic, or perfectionism, or guilt. Today, I am cleaning my home for everyone in my city who has to sleep on the streets tonight. Today, I will choose to be patient with my children, not because I want to be the perfect mother, or win my children’s favor, but on behalf of all the children whose parents have ripped and torn them apart. Today, I will ignore the easy convenience of McDonald’s and serve my family homemade food, not out of snobbery or elitism, but for all of the people of the world whose water is poisoned and whose food is scarce. Today, I will choose to carry my orange peels to the compost bin and my scrap paper to the recycling box, bypassing the more available garbage can, not out of some misplaced reverence for Mother Earth or vague notion about saving the planet, but because I can hear the groaning of Creation. Today, I will believe that death does not have the final word, not out of simplistic naiveté or blind conformity, but because of grace that gives me the courage to hope. Today, I will sing for the widower who finds his voice has died along with his wife. Today, I will walk for the woman whose crippled body is bound to a wheelchair. Today, I will push as hard as I can for all of those people whose will to push has been drained nearly dry.
Today is Christmas Day in Bethlehem. And today, through my simple acts of obedience, Jesus is born.