A few days before the beginning of Advent last year, I found myself in a lonely hospital waiting room, desperately pacing.
Moments earlier a small army had sprung into action, wheeling my wife down the hall, around the corner, and through an imposing set of doors. I followed as best I could as I fumbled with the disposable jumpsuit I had been instructed to don. But then I was abandoned in a nook by those double doors, and there, with the stacks of magazines and a muted television, I waited.
Any moment someone was supposed to come back through those doors and usher me in. Each second lasted days.
On the cusp of Advent, at the edge of fear, standing at a crossroads between fatherhood and the unimaginable, my world felt suddenly fragile. Powerless and impatient, I remember nervously glancing up the hall at the nurses’ station some thirty feet away, hoping for some reassuring glance. None came.
Most Advent sermons and reflections lack the drama involved in any ordinary story of childbirth. But what Advent anticipates is nothing like our ordinary stories of childbirth. On the one hand, like every other pregnant mother in her day, Mary bore the Messiah without the relatively high assurances of success afforded to our modern childbirth stories by things like nurses’ stations, sanitary disposable jumpsuits, and emergency cesareans. On the other hand, as extraordinary as every ordinary child is, this child was much more so. Whatever it might have felt like to be there in person, the theological weight of this birth narrative is more like an explosion.
The downplayed drama of the birth of Jesus is best captured by the most ignored and underpreached Christmas narrative in the Bible: that of the twelfth chapter of the book of Revelation.
It begins with a sign in the sky: a woman, clothed in radiance like the sun, stands on the moon, a starry crown on her head. Pregnant and in the midst of labor, she cries out in pain. Immediately, both the woman and her newborn son are under attack from a powerful enemy. But almost as quickly as the tension is built up, it is released: the son is taken up into heaven; the woman is cared for by God for three and a half years.
Mary is one of the stock characters of Advent. Her basic story is well known. A young woman, a virgin, unmarried but betrothed, is visited by an angel. After she becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit, her husband-to-be stays with her in spite of the scandal because of a similar angelic visitation. Then a government census policy requiring a long journey lands her in labor in a Bethlehem stable. Cribless, she gets creative with the feed trough. Angels singing songs, shepherds bringing praise, and magi offering gifts round out the classic Nativity scene.
Mary’s importance in Advent is well placed. On a literal level, if Advent is about the coming of the Messiah (advent comes from a Latin word that means coming), then that Messiah’s mother is quite justifiably a big part of the story. After all, she is the one in whom the body of that Messiah is formed and through whom he enters the world. But even beyond that literal meaning of Advent, the connected themes of light entering a dark world and of waiting for something that will change everything also resonate with our imaginings of the experience of Mary and most stories of pregnancy and childbirth.
That is because babies represent hope. An ordinary season of life yields to a strange and uncomfortable nine months, culminating in a wild and painful day or so. And the result is a small, squirmy, crying person. When my wife gave birth to our daughter about a year ago, there were scary moments, things that we didn’t plan. But the result is our little girl with her huge personality, charming smile, and clear sense of determination. The normal, uncomfortable, and painful dance, and together they produce new life. The darkness surrenders to the light. The waiting leads to an arrival that changes everything.
Babies represent hope in part because of their future orientation, the decades they have to look forward to, the sense of discovery and newness that they bring to everything. But babies also represent hope because, like hope, they are fragile. New and expecting parents worry about mercury levels and caffeine and alcohol and sugar and shaking and growth curves and developmental milestones and on and on.
And hope presupposes fragility because hope is only possible in the face of uncertainty; it is nonsensical everywhere else. I don’t hope for the sun to rise tomorrow morning because I have no reason to think that it will fail to do so. Hope only comes into play as the alternative in the face of a dreadful, unthinkable, but apparently inevitable future. Just like an infant, hope is a fragile thing just by virtue of being what it is. When it stops being fragile, it is no longer hope; it has morphed into something else.
This is what the twelfth chapter of Revelation captures so graphically. The woman is glorious. Clothed with the sun, she is, quite literally, glowing. She’s also in great pain. And she’s at great risk too. The enemy threatening to consume the child is not only real—he is gargantuan and menacing. This is not the sanitized “Away in a Manger” rendition of the scene, where everything is so perfectly Christmas-card-choreographed that baby Jesus doesn’t even cry, and we’re left to wonder whether there were any labor pains at all.
This scene is rife with fragility, with vulnerability. That she and her son are both protected so immediately and anticlimactically could be seen to undercut this. But this deus ex machina serves an important point: hope is possible only because of what God does. Hope is rational because of a God who acts, whose coming is imminent. God’s action is ever the only source of solid hope because hope is an impossible possibility. All of the available empirical evidence points in the same direction—and the anticipated result is not good. Hope is believing God is moving in a different direction.
The impossibility of hope is underscored by the other main character of Revelation 12. Nearby in the sky is another sign: the enemy of the woman, a great red dragon, ten horned and seven headed, wearing seven crowns, a monster able to knock stars out of the sky with a wag of his tail. This enormous foe seems to have only one goal: to consume the child the woman is about to give birth to. But his plan is thwarted, at which point he is drawn into a war in heaven that he easily loses so that he and his angels are cast down to the earth.
Very unlike Mary, Satan is not one of the stock characters of Christmas. And by the same token, depictions of heavenly warfare are not fixtures of the Christmas greeting card industry either.
The Hebrew word satan means accuser. Whatever you might think of the more moderate, mischievous role the character represented by this word seems to play in the book of Job, in the New Testament “the satan” has morphed into a proper noun, Satan, the personification of all that is evil and set in opposition to God and God’s creatures. Moreover, in the book of Revelation he appears to still be a character in heaven, at least up until this point in chapter 12, where he is finally banished in an apparently abrupt and uninteresting battle.
None of this seems to go with the typical Christmas vibe. Fiery red dragons do not typically accompany Christmas trees, evergreen wreaths, and mistletoe. Snowmen and Santa and sweet baby Jesus seem to clash with Satan.
But baby Jesus clashing with Satan is exactly the point here in Revelation. The dragon knows what is going on here: incarnation. Theologically, this is the act of God that changes everything for humanity, the impossible act that restores our hearts to God as it restores in us the likeness of God.
But to Satan this looks a little different: it looks like an invasion. In Eden, the serpent is instrumental in humanity’s betrayal of God, whereas here, the serpent is hell-bent on preventing Adam’s second chance from being born. In Eden, God promises that Eve’s seed will crush the head of the serpent. This child is that seed; the serpent knows it, and so he goes on offense. His plan is thwarted, and he is defeated in a war in heaven and then cast down below.
Wars are often justified as being the only possible path to peace, and these justifications are generally overstatements, if not outright lies. Fornication does not often lead to purity, adultery rarely yields marital faithfulness, and violence should not be expected to produce peace. (Even if there are plausible candidates for exceptions to this rule, that is beside the point.) Here, we encounter a battle that is not fought by imperfect, sinful humans. On one side of this battle is God, the ultimate Good. On the other side is the personification of rebellion and, well, violence.
An important fact, often missed by readers of Revelation’s battles, is that there isn’t much of a battle scene depicted here or elsewhere in this book. We know there was a clash of some kind; we know that Satan lost and that God won; and we hear of some implications of the result. But there is no clear description of the method of God’s victory, no account of the two sides, their weapons and tactics, the ebb and flow of the battle itself, or anything else you might expect to find in a battle tale, ancient or modern.
In line with the tenor of the rest of the book of Revelation, Satan is not defeated by being shot, bombed, or gutted by a sword. Satan’s defeat was not affected by Satanesque violence but by what the Archbishop Oscar Romero calls “the violence of love,” that is, the victim’s violence experienced—not perpetrated—by the crucified Christ.1 This is the engine of God’s victories throughout the New Testament and particularly in the book of Revelation: the blood of the Lamb and the church’s word of testimony. Jesus’s death and the truth Christians tell about that death and the way Christians live because of that death are the principal weapons God uses to defeat sin, death, and God’s other enemies. Love is the only kind of violence that can lead to real peace because it isn’t a violence that destroys but a violence that makes things new; it is a violence that doesn’t beat enemies into submission but beats swords into plowshares.
But that does not mean it is easy or that it never hurts. This is where a lot of Christmas sermons, stories, and devotionals get it so wrong. Anyone who has welcomed a child into their family knows that whatever else a birth might be, it is certainly a disruption. If you even half-heartedly encounter this disruption, it cannot help but change your life. A baby represents a choice, a division: not peace but a sword. The baby Jesus does this too, but he does so at a cosmic level, and at the level of every human heart.
But the challenge represented by the Christ is not to rise to the tasks of parenthood, of continuing the species, of basic human responsibility and familial love. Like a parent, we must let this child into our hearts, allow this new reality to change us, to bend with it, and that kind of acceptance is challenging, especially because we have already rejected the Christ as a species. We are, so to speak, genetically at odds with this child. Since the garden, we have been in league with the dragon. And therefore, this child doesn’t merely want to bend us; he wants to, in a sense, break us.
After the dragon’s defeat there is a thunderous song of triumph followed by a brief chase scene, but the game has already been lost. Like a sociopath with hostages and no exit, Satan knows he is done for, and so now, he has nothing to lose. His pursuit of the woman’s other offspring is his attempt to take down as many others with him as he can (Rev. 12:17).
The victory is won, and yet still we wait. The enemy is defeated, our alliance with him broken, and yet still here we are, weak and vulnerable. Defection from his ranks is now an option, but we too often remain his hostages, hiding behind our human inventions to forget our vulnerability, to forget that there are enemies at all, to forget that life always includes suffering and that we are both victims and perpetrators of that suffering. But since we have a God who acts, there is also hope. And so, in spite of that enemy and his evil machinations, there is the hope of peace.
The big double doors eventually opened, and I was brought in to be there for my wife and, a few moments later, to meet our daughter—my life’s greatest disruption and one of its most blessed gifts.
Eventually the dragon who makes war on God’s people loses. Once and for all, defeated by the vulnerability of pregnancy and the vulnerability of the cross, the dragon is finally done in by a people who hope, a people of peace. Eventually the waiting ceases, the heavens open to reveal a new world, and our vulnerable bodies are replaced with imperishable ones.
Once again, come Lord Jesus. Bend our hearts toward you and away from your enemy and his lies. Bend us, yes, but break us too if need be.
Break us to remake us.