He was born at 7:49 p. m., and the room was crowded. Maybe it was because of the agonizing wait and a narrowly-avoided C-section, or because we were young and scared, or because my labor was long—just shy of two full days and nights. In any case, the early shift of nurses stayed while the late shift took over, all of them crammed into that hospital room while their own families waited at home. Perhaps they stayed because it's worth waiting to experience new life.
And so he finally came, our firstborn son, born from love and pain, with a labor so hard and uncertain that somewhere in the night the purpose of it all was swallowed up. But then—the first cry. And with it, we were surprised—surprised by joy.
Of all the ways the Father could choose to bring us new life, he chose the unexpected method of a baby—a Savior King born to an ordinary girl, brought forth with all the waiting and uncertainty and pain that every labor brings. God's methods are mysterious, but not without purpose. In the glitz and hoopla of the Christmas season, our souls need the reminder of Advent to embrace the full surprise delivered in the birth of Jesus. Let us turn to the importance of Advent as a way for our hearts to prepare for the surprise, the wonder, and the joy of Jesus' birth.
Surprised by uncertainty
Mary asked the angel, "But how can this happen? I am a virgin." —Luke 1:34
The familiarity of the Christmas story tempts us to skip over the details, to forget that the story of Christ's birth is a historical reality, that at one point in one time, a woman blinked her eyes out of sleep to see an angel standing before her, and she heard words that thrust her into the unknown. With a few short sentences, Mary's life went from predictable to precarious, from understandable to uncertain. In this moment of history, God defied every law of creation to make the impossible possible, to declare his power over all he has made.
Overshadowed by his glory, Mary became a living miracle, but not one that others could readily perceive. Who was to believe the preposterous story of a peasant girl from a little city? Who would suspend disbelief long enough to even consider the possibility? Who can enter the impossible mystery? Perhaps this is why later Jesus would teach the "mature ones" around him that "anyone who doesn't receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15).
Seasons of uncertainty remind us of our humanity and God's divinity. Said another way, the mysteries that we cannot understand are living proof that we are not God and never will be. Every part of the Christmas story stands outside human reason and convention and beckons us to a greater mystery. This mystery requires us to give up on human wisdom and receive the truth like a child. For Mary, uncertainty preceded a miraculous birth. For all the ways we feel uncertain, let us remember that God brings life out of nothing, and he can bring life to even the most uncertain places in our own souls.
Surprised by pain
"Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world." —John 16:33
Imagine what that midnight angel's pronouncement brought with it. As modern-day Christians, we enter Advent knowing the full story: the birth, the temple, the miracles, the cross, the church. But what also came forth from that angelic announcement was pain. Pain came in the disappointment that Mary must have felt from her family and friends, from the moments where Mary felt misunderstood and alone. Pain came in the uncertainty of her young son's birth, the uncomfortable travel, the lack of room for them in Bethlehem. Pain came in the prophet Simeon's pronouncement, that "a sword will pierce your very soul" (Luke 2:35). And what pain Mary must have known when she watched all that she had hoped for fail, as she stood at the foot of the cruel cross where her beloved son bled.
In the experience of Advent, we are reminded that God's own son came into the same burdensome world we experience. We are reminded that his life was shrouded in uncertainty and surrounded by pain. But this is where the hope of Christmas is most fully revealed. God's son laid aside his glory to prove his love and to provide an in-the-flesh example of God's triumph over any earthly pain we can experience. Jesus didn't come to comfort the comfortable, but to relieve the oppressed. He didn't come to spur on the successful, but to heal the hurting. The story of Jesus' birth doesn't create a barrier between us, but builds a bridge. The dark season of Advent beckons us to be honest about the burden of our own brokenness, and to allow our own pain to remind us that we need a Savior more than we need anything this world can give.
Surprised by joy
"When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy." —Luke 1:44
Joy cannot be present without the unexpected. It is the element of surprise that knocks us off-balance just long enough for a different source to well up within. For example, when Mary's cousin Elizabeth embraces her, swollen bellies rubbing together, uncertainty disappears (Luke 1:41). For at least a moment, joy trumps the waiting and the pain. This moment of joy isn't bound by time, and it doesn't follow a formula. Where pain and uncertainty may ding like a bell, joy blasts like a trumpet. The clanging sounds of pain, waiting, and uncertainty may surround us, but the blast of joy supersedes and surrounds all other noise.
Joy is the sound of angels, the triumph of heaven, the power of glory, the preamble of victory. This kind of joy doesn't fade with time or circumstance. Human minds cannot conceive it, and human hands cannot fashion it. It doesn't come as a result of effort, and it doesn't come with a price tag.
This joy produces awe and wonder. This joy makes us catch our breath up for a moment in suspended disbelief. This is the joy that made baby John leap and Mary sing and shepherds bow. This joy made gift-bearing kings kneel and prophets prophesy and Mary ponder and rabbis wonder. This joy is so grand that it overshadows any pain: past, present, or future. This joy is music in our moments of victory and rescue in our moments of doubt. It is the impossible parts of the Christmas story—and our own story—where joy is most powerful.
No ordinary baby
"Yes," said Queen Lucy. "In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world." —C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
To ignore the waiting and labor pains of Christ's coming is to miss the greatest gift of his birth—that Jesus Christ is our Savior King, born in uncertainty and pain, to bring the surprise of joy that sets our souls free. What is it that frees us? It is Christ's presence. He does not remove uncertainty and pain from our lives, but he gives us the gift of his presence within it. And although one day, when "everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all" (Luke 8:17), until then, we embrace the Advent season every year and the Advent season of our lives.
We wait in hopeful expectation, in uncertainty and pain. We wait in darkness for the greatest light. We live in the invisible reality that we have a Creator who loves us so deeply and so well, that he chose an unexpected method to bring an unfathomable gift—his own Son, to walk with us, teach us, live with us and die for us—for nothing more than "the joy awaiting him." (Hebrews 12:2). He is Jesus, author of life, perfector of our hearts, born into darkness, who brings forth the eternal and inextinguishable light of the world.
This Advent season, lay before God all the pain, uncertainty and burden of this world, and wait in glorious anticipation to be surprised by joy.
Nicole Unice is a regular contributor for Today's Christian Woman, and the author of She's Got Issues (Tyndale, 2012) and co-author of Start Here: Beginning a Relationship with Jesus (David C. Cook, 2014). She is a ministry associate at Hope Church in Richmond, VA, and mom of three. Find her speaking calendar at nicoleunice.com.