Can you believe there is only a week until Christmas? Since I work weekends, and lots of Sundays lately, I’ve only made it to one church service this Advent season. I intended to visit a church group last night but ended up staying home so that I could catch up with my dad for the first time in a few days (through the weekend he slept at my mom’s bedside in the hospital and is staying again tonight – I don’t think she’s ever found so much comfort waking up to his snoring before). With so much care, attention and concern directed towards my mother, I’ve been expectantly awaiting her recovery more than the coming of Christmas day.
It wasn’t until my calendar alerted me to wish my sister Noel a happy birthday,* that it struck me how close Christmas is. For everyone in our family, her birthday practically starts the countdown. Today it provoked me to re-read the nativity story in Luke. I prefer Luke’s account to Matthew’s. Not only is the nativity story in Matthew shorter, it lacks all the narrative flare of Luke’s.
I found myself most interested in Zachariah and Elizabeth’s part of the story. These two are the parents of John the Baptist and relatives of Jesus Christ. I couldn’t help but think it was a kindness that God gave them John, their only son, when they were already old. Very likely, they passed away before he began living in the wilderness and was beheaded. His mother would probably have been worried sick about him living out there surviving on locusts and honey. It’s a terrible thing for parents to lose their child, even more so when he is their only child. I imagine that God gave them just long enough to deeply delight in him.
Thinking of the gratitude that both Elizabeth and Zachariah express for John when he’s born brought me back to a passage of Gilead I’ve been dwelling on (yes, I’m not yet ready to be done with that book). The narrator John Ames also had a child in his old age. He writes to his son,
“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face….This is just a way of saying that I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world—your mother excepted, of course—and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.”
What Ames is writing about is the depth of joy deferred. That is what Zachariah and Elizabeth’s story is about too. The Christmas story itself, of a savior long awaited, is also one of joy deferred.
The beauty, maybe the reward, of joy deferred is that we usually have a more profound sense of gratitude for gifts others often take for granted. For a child after years of being barren. For a spouse after decades of singleness. For our health, when it’s been restored after a long period of illness. For a savior who whispers we’re loved when we feel unlovable and tells us we’re forgiven when we feel unpardonable. Gratitude is hardly an adequate word. It doesn’t quite touch on the depth and complexity of what we can feel. I think that quote from Ames best captures it. It is a feeling without proportion.
All of those years of solitude, of postponement, were not a waste for Ames. They allowed him to see more clearly “that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” So, he has honored what has been put in his hands. It is obvious that he was a great blessing to his congregation and friends even while he awaited his own blessing.
I imagine that Zechariah and Elizabeth were a great blessing to others before receiving John. We’re told that they were righteous in God’s eyes and we know that His greatest commandments are that we love Him and others. That’s true religion and righteousness.
A theme in Christianity (inherited from our Judaic tradition, from the moment when God promises Abraham his son Isaac) is that we are blessed to be a blessing. In my experience, we often become a blessing to others before we experiencing our own blessing.
I’m sure that the reason I’m most interested in this aspect of the nativity story is because I’ve been reflecting a lot upon, as well as living in, postponement. Even before yesterday’s post, my thoughts have been on my friends and I who are all still single despite all our effort and any number of dates/dating experiences we’ve had/endured (even while I posted some guidance, I’m well aware it offers no guarantee). Through my mom’s drawn out ordeal, I’ve not only thought about her delayed recovery but continually had in mind, and been in even more awe of, a couple of my friends who live with chronic medical conditions and pain. We’re much like John Ames before he was blessed with his young wife and son. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth before the angel Gabriel brought them good news. Like Israel waiting for her savior.
Most of these people I’ve been thinking of are doing a great deal to honor the precious things God has put into their hands right now. Being slowed down by chronic pain, one friend has started a nonprofit that provides underwear for poor children in local Dayton schools (which may sound like a laughable cause until you hear the stories of these children and realize how valuable it is to have a clean pair of underwear). Another friend who is pursuing a medical degree, despite chronic pain and complicated medical issues, is becoming more and more aware of the gaps and problems in our medical system. Through these experiences, she’s gaining more compassion, making numerous connections and coming up with practical solutions that will allow her to one day open up an incredible clinic for underprivileged people. Despite her own suffering, no one is better to turn to when you need sympathy. She always seems to sympathize in a way that brings others (especially me) great comfort.
Then there is Christa and Jon’s friend, who has long been single, who has been one of their greatest blessings after moving down to Alabama. When Christa’s father-in-law passed away on her birthday, he sent her the sweetest and most touching message letting her know how grieved he was on her behalf that this loss had occurred on her birthday. He hoped that, after the funeral, they would all have a chance to celebrate her as she deserved. I know that message brought her great comfort. When she and Jon made the decision to stop pushing off pregnancy, he helped them to be much more excited about starting a family by letting them know the great joy it would bring him to be their child’s Godparent. I could go on and on about all my single friends who are using their freedom and singleness to be a profound blessing to others, even if in the seemingly simplest of ways.
I wonder what splendors God has hidden from the world to be revealed to them when they come into their joy? Even while we do not always know what joy awaits us, what blessing is being deferred while God uses us to bless others (for God answers the desires of our hearts at unexpected times in unexpected ways, just as He sent a savior that neither the Jewish people nor the world entirely expected), I have great faith in His goodness. In His providence. That He will bring us into our full joy. For to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, the morning light of heaven is about to break, which will guide the way to a path of peace. Of flourishing, wholeness and delight (Luke 1: 78-79, my paraphrase).
It seems that even while I haven’t been intentional about observing Advent, God’s drawn me into it anyway. Because Advent is meant to be about anticipating the splendor that’s been hidden from the world in a gift of love that has no proportion. In a joy that was deferred, and continues to be somewhat deferred as we await Jesus’ return.
*It isn’t that I forgot Noel’s birthday, I’m just terrible at keeping track of what day it is. For that reason, all my family members and close friends birthdays are set in my calendar. Before I started setting these reminders my family members would call to remind me if it was someone’s birthday.
Feature image by Ben White.