June 7, 2017 / Praxis
Jason Byassee finds religion reemerging in Vancouver, British Columbia.
December 21, 2017
I first discovered I was pregnant in the early days of December 2011. We were living in Chicago at the time, a city almost sure to be blanketed in snow during the Christmas season. I remember sitting on the couch staring at the white plastic pregnancy test, two tiny blue lines indicating a positive result. Our tree glowed in the corner, and a shower of flurries fell just outside our window. It was my first pregnancy—a journey totally unknown to me—so I curled up under a blanket to ponder the coming months in my heart.
I admit somewhat sheepishly that, prior to that year, I had never given serious thought to the pregnancy that serves as Advent’s backdrop. I had grown up rehearsing the story from the time I was a child, so it’s not as though Mary’s circumstances were unfamiliar. I had always known her pregnancy was unexpected. I had always assumed she was afraid. I had always recognized her vulnerability. But my own pregnancy cast the whole story in a new light. The uncertainty, the excitement, the fear—it was all inside me now, quite literally, bringing me new layers of understanding I had never before considered.
I was struck by the pure physicality of it. Pregnancy is not simply a waiting game; it’s a bodily commitment. Not long into that stretch of nine months, I felt as though my body no longer belonged to me. My energy, my appetite, and my health all pivoted toward the nourishment of the tiny life inside me. The morning sickness was both physically exhausting and psychologically demanding. I simultaneously felt joyful and trapped.
Later on, as my stomach swelled and the baby occupied more space, my joints began to spread and my back began to hurt. I was appalled by the smell of red meat. I struggled to get enough air in my lungs. I heaved myself up stairs by fastening myself to the rail with a white-knuckle grip. Even turning over at night, from one side to another, felt like moving the Titanic. With each creeping month, my anticipation surged as my body slowed. Every part of me, from my heart to my soul to my muscles and toes, was participating in the advent—the “coming”—of this child.
This all-encompassing process raised fresh questions for me about Mary’s own experience. Prior to my own pregnancy, the gap between Mary’s reception of the news and the delivery of her son had existed in my mind as a tidy blank. Aside from a few glancing acknowledgements of her plight, my imagination persisted in a vision of serenity: the young mother cradling her pregnant belly, a warm smile of contentment on her face. It was all a very angelic affair.
My own pregnancy complicated this image. The intimacy of her sacrifice had never occurred to me, and suddenly I had a lot of questions. Did Mary experience morning sickness? Did she suffer any complications? Was her pregnancy easy or hard? Was her labor long or short? Did her body sustain long-term injuries from the delivery? For all we know, Mary was not exempted from the pain of childbearing. Instead, obedience required her to step directly into it. Pain was a part of the call.
The Witness of Pregnancy
The witness of Mary’s pregnancy, and the pregnancy of every woman since, is that each journey of childbearing is a tiny Advent of sorts. Each points back to the holy labor pains of anticipating God to come near. And this year, once again, I find myself experiencing advent writ small, as I await the birth of my third child. Unlike my first pregnancy, which had only just begun in December, I am far more pregnant today. At seven months, my body appears much more like popular depictions of the pregnant Virgin, so I think about her often as I waddle around my house, massaging my sore rib cage and struggling to sleep at night.
Each of these tiny advents has instructed me in the discipline of waiting, and this time around is no exception. This year I couldn’t help but notice a sharp contrast between the slowness of my pregnancy and the frantic rush to kick-start Christmas. Just before Halloween, I encountered the first Black Friday sale at a local store, and around the same time, the Hallmark Channel, which is notorious for its slew of romantic Christmas movies, debuted its first feature. And not even a week into November, my friends began posting photos of their homes decked in garland and lights. This year, more than any year I can recall, the onset of Christmas has felt especially widespread and hurried.
And I can understand why. This year has been dark. We have watched our society’s ugliest instincts gain fresh influence. Racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and misogyny have enjoyed a new spotlight. Foolishness is lauded as conviction, and morbid narcissism is shrugged off as a quirk. Added to it all is the grief of watching Christian leaders anoint this wickedness as virtue, casting their lots with power instead of Christ.
So I sympathize with the desire to escape. At a time when despair is not hard to come by, and cynicism is threatening to swallow us whole, who wouldn’t want to banish the bleakness with a sparkly tree and happy carols?
But the witness of pregnancy will not allow this. Its message for the season is clear: Advent cannot be rushed. Inherent to Advent is a waiting that is plodding and hard. The progress, though thrilling at times, is often undiscernible, and our attempts to hurry it are futile.
However, there is a second witness of pregnancy, which is this: the waiting is not passive, and neither is it in vain. In pregnancy, a life is being formed. A heart is learning to beat, legs to kick, lungs to function. For this reason, a “successful” pregnancy is not measured by an earlier date of arrival. Quite the opposite, in fact. Doctors will go to extreme lengths to keep the baby inside the mother’s womb as long as possible, because the waiting is an essential part of the growth.
What this teaches us is that waiting is not a thing to be merely endured; it is an essential time of preparation. And the pain, as excruciating as it can be, is a part of that process.
Giving a Name to the Pain
For those who follow Christ, this is a source of great comfort and hope. Advent, after all, points to the second greater coming of Christ, a coming that situates us in a year-round, millennia-long season of waiting. As we endure this seemingly endless delay, the witness of pregnancy gives us a language to name the pain. The brokenness is not meaningless or empty. What we are experiencing, in all the division, strife, violence, hate, and greed, is the pain of childbearing.
Naming this brokenness as a kind of labor pain can help us fight the temptation to despair. It also teaches us how to respond to it. In her book Creating with God, a sustained meditation on pregnancy and faith, Sarah Jobe examines one of the most productive responses to the pain of childbearing: groaning. For women in labor, groaning is not just a natural response to pain, but it facilitates the process. Low moans and groans “allow the contractions to do their work.”1
This reality, once again, affirms the witness of pregnancy. The fact that our world is broken is neither a reason to harden our hearts nor to throw up our hands in resignation. Instead, it invites us to groan. Drawing on the language of Romans 8:22, in which creation is depicted as “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (NIV), Jobe concludes, “Groaning is work. It accomplishes something . . . groaning is a helpful tool for the hard, often discouraging work for bringing new life into the world.”2
What is especially fascinating about the groaning of pregnancy is that its quality matters. Jobe’s birth coach was careful to distinguish between the low moans and groans, which aid in labor, and the “high-pitched screams and yells,” which “add to the tension of the laboring woman.”3 This aspect of labor reminds us that not all groaning, and not all waiting, is the same. Instead, we must consider the nature of our cries. How are we groaning? Frantically and without hope, or soulfully and with purpose? Are we escalating the fear and despair, or are we giving voice to a better reality? How we approach the pain of childbearing, the work of groaning, and the art of waiting will determine whether we are surrendering ourselves to the sacred current of Advent or vainly swimming against it.
A Productive Pain
These are the insights granted to us by women’s bodies. Every pain of childbearing—from the discomfort of nausea to the loss of miscarriage or the grief of infertility—serves as a window of understanding into this season of longing. The pain also teaches us how to wait. Rather than anesthetize the pain with blind positivity or shriek and panic as a people without hope, we must devote ourselves to learning how to groan.
During my first pregnancy, I remember chatting with a coworker who had three children in their teens. As she watched my pregnancy progress, she reminisced about her own experience, and she said something I will never forget. She said she had loved each one of her pregnancies, and even enjoyed the labor. Throughout her pregnancies, she felt beautiful and full of life. I could understand that, but during the labor? That I found harder to believe. I wondered whether the pain sensory part of her brain had somehow become disconnected.
But she offered a different explanation. “Labor pain is a productive pain,” she said. “It’s the only pain that produces something.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe Advent. This season of anticipation is not a stagnant one. The pain is not merely incidental. And we do not simply exist in the darkness, passively waiting for the light to come and pierce it. Instead, we are active without being hurried, productive without trying to escape. Every December, and all year long, we groan in eager anticipation of the Savior who will return again. That is the witness of pregnancy in these deep pains of childbearing: it is teaching us how to wait well.
Sharon Hodde Miller
Sharon Hodde Miller is an author and speaker with a PhD on the topic of women, ministry, and calling. She lives in the Raleigh/Durham area with her husband and two boys, and she recently released her first book, Free of Me: Why Life is Better When It’s Not about You.