I found out I was pregnant on an otherwise ordinary Friday morning.
I’d like to say that my response was like that of Mary, the mother of Jesus: peaceful. Full of gratitude, followed by a spontaneous offering of praise to God for this wondrous gift.
Instead, I’m sorry to say, my response was a lot more like the story that precedes it in the book of Luke. That story, the angel Gabriel’s foretelling of John the Baptist’s birth to his father Zechariah, has always been one of my favorites, because there is so much under the text. Here’s the story of a couple who had experienced the disappointment and shame of infertility, being told that at long last, they’re not just going to have a baby, they’re going to have a prophet who will prepare people for the Lord. And Zechariah, an older man who surely had known suffering and disappointment, but is a priest and ostensibly should “know better” speaks from his pain and is rendered mute because he is skeptical of this gift.
I guess it is true that if you have nothing good to say, you should say nothing. Or in this case, be forced to.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be pregnant. It was that through years of sometimes difficult and lonely singleness, disappointment and disillusionment in work, and health-affecting depression and anxiety, my heart had grown at best, cautious and at worst, cynical. I very much wanted to become a mother, but with every hopeful thought would eventually come the inevitable dark thought:
Maybe I’m too old.
My husband had chemotherapy a few years ago.
So many women I know have struggled with infertility and have suffered miscarriages.
The intense anxiety and stress I’ve been dealing with might keep me from conceiving.
We decided that given our ages and my health we should just be open to having a baby, with the caveat that it might be another painful and disappointing journey we’d have to travel.
We got pregnant only a couple of months later.
I’m ashamed at how small my faith was and obviously how hesitant, suspicious, and cynical I was toward God, because upon finding out that this small miracle, this gift was being given to us, I immediately assumed it was a chemical or ectopic pregnancy. It couldn’t possibly be real, because life is a struggle and why should I be exempt from it?
Even after my doctor and a blood test confirmed it, even after I heard my baby’s heartbeat, there was still the new dread of miscarriage. I found myself vacillating even more between hope and excitement and then the impulse not to get attached for fear that we’d be disappointed. On top of that, I knew better, that I should put my hope in Christ and when I couldn’t, I beat myself up for my lack of faith.
It took a lot not to give voice to what began to feel like a liturgy of fear and negativity going on my head. It rendered me mute (from writing at least) because I had nothing good to say and I was of course, fearful of sharing anything that I might have to take back. Voicing those fears, instead of providing relief, just made me more sad and disappointed in myself. Which was part of the problem. Myself, that is. And focusing my attention there.
Through the grace of God, I was able to shift my gaze off of myself and mentally reciting the liturgy of my fear. It wasn’t until I was able to give my baby a name that I was able to rejoice in this miracle. Which made me think of Zechariah and of Advent.
If Mary’s response is that of a fresh, eager young woman seeing God in all the divine’s wonder and magnificence, the story of Zechariah is a gift to anyone who has struggled to trust God while facing your greatest “hopes and fears, of all the years.” It is a realistic advent, one that seems like a punishment, but still results in grace.
My sister, a pastor, preached a few years ago that perhaps it was really grace that God made Zechariah mute. That way, he couldn’t voice his own fears and skepticism about the child. He couldn’t practice the liturgy of disappointment, which I’m sure would not have been helpful to his wife, who was also older, had been unable to have children, and surely had her own doubts to worry about.
In the story, Zechariah is able to speak again when he can give his child the name God gave him: John, which means “God is gracious.” He is finally able to sing a song of praise to God when he can admit that despite the pain of disappointment and fear and suffering, God is gracious.
God is indeed gracious, as we reflect this Advent season that in Jesus we find the antidote to all our dashed hopes and expectations. Jesus is the perfect, healthy, longed-for Child. Jesus is the perfect Lover of our souls, the perfect Bridegroom. Jesus is the perfect King, who “rules the world with righteousness and judges people with equity.” (Psalm 9:8). Jesus is the perfect High Priest, who can sympathize with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15).
This High Priest sympathized with Zechariah the Priest’s hopes and fears and still allowed him a song and a gift in the end, even with his skepticism. When we can name even the source of our hopes and fears as some kind of grace, we can actually experience God’s grace. May you experience that grace this Advent season.