Advent, my favorite time of year. I always get the tingles when the choir sings that first stanza from “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” Born to set Thy people free! I cry essentially non-stop from Thanksgiving onward. But this year’s tears feel different, they’re disappointed tears, dark and desperate. We are surrounded: racial divides, war, genocide, dumpster fire elections. No matter our efforts to evade suffering it has come for us. Favor has seemed to settle on the few but dissolve among the masses. I know one kindergartener who is winning a battle against cancer and one who is losing. Still, the weary world tries to rejoice.
Mary has come to me differently this advent season too. Familiar images of her seem fresh, she looks scared and unsure. I don’t see her tucked in by a cozy hay-filled cot. I see her wild eyes as unexpected birthing pains begin, I see Joseph’s shoulders to his ears. I see her frantically searching for something familiar, a relative, a midwife, a friend. I see her turn her face to the sky as she wills to mind the angels words, Mary! You are so favored by God!∗ She calms herself with the promise. God Himself is within her, surely every provision will come her way, every door will be thrown open in a royal welcome. The King of the Universe leads her waddling frame. I wonder how long until the tears pricked her eyes. Did she begin to doubt God’s call on her life when the 5th door was slammed in her face? The 10th? Did she question God’s favor while cold despair trickled down her fingertips? Did disappointment firmly settle into her gut when she saw the filthy floor where she would give birth? I once read a pillow in a Christian bookstore that said, ‘When God Closes a Door He Opens a Window’. But Mary might look at her world, our world, and deduce that sometimes God just closes the door.
Mary instructs me in this season of suffering advent-ing. In suffering, she didn’t wring her hands, she didn’t demand answers, she didn’t pass the buck. She made herself at home in it, tucked her questions like blankets all around her, and tucked the wonders given into the folds of her heart. In shame, Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock, just as it was with shame that Jesus hung naked, putrid and bleeding on the tree. We avert our eyes and hurry past since public suffering embarrasses us. What was true then is true now- we see it play out with those experiencing homelessness. We disengage on a grand scale, securing distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’; we encamp and isolate them. We shut door after door in their faces. We demand answers as we recoil from the unwanted. We need the separation of their choices, ‘What did they do to end up like this? What choices did they make that I can avoid?’ I know because I’m often the one asking the questions. We determine they are in some way inherently faulty in a way we are not. Even in advent, arguably the most charitable time of year we ‘love’ and we ‘serve’ carefully. We ladle soup into waiting bowls keeping a safe arms length from the stricken, for the lightning that has struck them can surely strike again.
I think the fear of getting struck is why the prophet Isaiah told us we would despise Jesus, we would keep our distance from Him∗∗. We are the crowds Isaiah predicted we would be. We found His sacrifice ineffectual, unproductive, and we esteemed it not. We stood at the cross slack jawed, the ways of Christ nonsensical to us. We demanded signs and miracles and smoke and rabbits pulled out of hats. We esteemed Him not because His priorities were all out of whack. He showed us He had the power to heal from afar but often chose not to. He instead stopped what He was doing to enter into the pain of irrelevant and disposable people: the dying girl, the bleeding woman, the dirty children. He esteemed their pain, He found it worth His time. When Satan tempted Jesus with pride He chose humiliation, or with power He chose meekness or with relevancy chose to be viewed as completely and utterly irrelevant. Satan told Jesus He didn’t have God’s favor and we nodded in agreement. We said that if God’s favor was truly upon Him He would have gotten off that cross, out of those dirty clothes, and into a nice house in the ‘burbs. We wanted Him to be the kind of savior we thought we needed, victorious and proud, valiant on a white horse. Instead He was ignored and rejected and homeless and invited us into a life of the same. We wanted to conquer the world and He offered us a job washing its dishes. He told us this is what it means to be favored by God: Get elbow deep in the suds with Me, loves.
I look at Mary and I wonder, if He allowed His own mother to be treated this way, what hope is there for the rest of us? I’m not wondering if God allows suffering or if we must sometimes ‘suffer for doing good’. I’m wondering if favor and suffering are intertwined to the degree that there is no favor to be had apart from suffering. Jesus swimming within her did not secure Mary a VIP pass in the world, instead it invited rejection. Even in utero He was despised, even unseen He was excluded, even in the womb doors were slammed in His face. God’s favor over Mary did not make her life more comfortable and secure it made it less. To carry Jesus within us is to be shrouded in His character, the closer we are to Him the more humble our circumstances will be. I would guess that Mary probably birthed every subsequent child predictably and comfortably in her own home. All of Jesus’ siblings most likely entered our world in mundane safety. It’s not just that we ‘may’ suffer as Christians it is that indifference, rejection, disdain seem to be the very hallmark of the favored.
We have this constant dripping need to be seen, validated, liked, relevant. We saddle up to the most recognized among us, we follow and ‘like’ them. But suffering we reject, we bind, we shout against it. We are like the Israelites who never learned to esteem suffering as a worthy teacher. When they were gathered up by the Babylonians and taken off into captivity, Jeremiah sent them God’s message: You have been taken where you don’t want to go, the Land of Suffering and Disappointment, where everything is new and weird and smells bad. You will be nobodies there. You will be tempted to clench your eyes and fists until its over, but that’s a mistake. Build houses there, not tents. Settle in. God goes with you and this foreign landscape is where He will do His best work. Marry off your kids with the full treatment, not at City Hall. Open the good champagne. Suffering awaits you, but wait like people who have hope. Take lessons and learn to waltz on the dance floor of Disappointment.∗∗∗
When I had cancer, I didn’t mind that suffering made me wait on God. I knew He met me in my suffering; that He knew it as His own. I didn’t mind that connection point with Jesus, I just mind when it is my only connection point to Jesus. I’d like to hurry through and get over and get past. This advent season has shown me how lazy my waiting has become. Suffering forces us to advent differently, waiting less like someone at a bus stop, phone in face, and more like someone waiting in a hospital waiting room. The latter is waiting in anticipation and on purpose, like God is actually restoring and redeeming even when every possible indicator points otherwise. He draws us into these waiting rooms where He can do His best work and like Mary we are wisest when we take what is offered. There’s no room for Him in a life filled up with the comforts of ‘stuff’, so suffering remains the most useful tool in emptying us of our tired junk. The manger is dirty and disappointing but at least it is empty. There is room for Him there.
- * Luke 1:30
- ** Isaiah 53:3
- *** Imagery borrowed from Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Amanda Cook’s song, Heroes