It is good for us to remember the Christmas story begins with a startled young woman. An angel interrupts Mary amidst her daily tasks with an incredible proposition. He tells her she is highly favored, that she does not need to be afraid, that she will carry a son in her womb who will be the most High, the Lord God. She will give birth to the Son of God.

“So what’ll it be Mary?” says the Angel.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be…”

But Mary’s “Yes” is just the beginning. I imagine she was like many young women who are pregnant for the first time. As her belly grew, she began to feel the movements of a Savior being knit together in her womb, the kicks of the Messiah against her stomach, the repositioning of Emmanuel against her ribs. She must have been excited and nervous as she prepared her body, her home and her family for this new child who was also Christ.

If we forget Mary’s story, we forget a part of Christ’s story that Christians are invited to overhear and participate in. We recite it in our creeds, “…conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…” and remember it in the month leading up to Christmas–the time we, like Mary, wait for the coming Savior.  The Advent season is the time we get to prepare and anticipate Christ’s birth, when we get to be with Mary in her pregnancy.

This is important for us as Christians because learning to wait gives depth to the hope we speak about at Christmas.  This is about more than learning the discipline of anticipating well.  It’s not about delayed gratification (we’re not waiting for Santa).  Mary’s waiting is not simply for the Christ child, but for the fullness of life this Christ will bring to his mother.  In Luke 2, right after Christ’s birth, a righteous man named Simeon takes the child in his arms and tells Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  Mary knows that Christ has come to be a sign, to remake the world.  She knows that God has come to earth to challenge our notions that we have created ourselves, that we need nothing outside ourselves.  This makes Christ dangerous, it makes him a target, and it means what Mary is waiting for is pain.  She is waiting for the world to pierce her son, and pierce her own soul too.

Paul Goodier writes in The Meaning is in the Waiting, “Mary’s waiting, therefore, is far from over. In pregnancy she had to face labor, that brought with it—guaranteed suffering, but Simeon’s blessing indicates that her agony has only just begun. She must face the hardest waiting of all: waiting for pain.”[1]

This is what advent teaches us: to wait and hope not only in the midst of pain, but amidst the guarantee of more pain. Hoping for Christ’s return contains a pain for the world-as-it-is-now.  The Holy Spirit prompts faithful anger at the world’s (and our own) continual and habitual enchantment with sin and death. But we also wait for the future pain of Christ’s return; the pain of dead things coming back to life. The pain of having the monstrous stuff of death peeled away from us, like Eustace’s transformation from a dragon back to a boy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We wait for Christ and we hope, in pain and for the coming pain that means real freedom from sin and death.  We hope for the pain that will come when Christ points to the ways we insist on chasing the illusion of this world and rips them away from us. Mary, more than any other Biblical figure, waits not only for the pain of Christ’s birth, but also for the pain of a mother with an unjustly crucified son.  And we are to learn to wait with her, to grieve the world, and to look forward to a painful refining by fire, when are sins are burned away and we are left with our created selves as they should be, as they were meant to be.

Popular culture has no use for Christmas once the holiday shopping rush is over. The decorations stay up for a few mandatory weeks, but after December 25th the sappy holiday specials dwindle, relieved retail workers retire their Santa hats to the store room for another year and we’re generally expected to get on with our lives. We’re whipped into a manic yuletide frenzy for months before that all-important date, and then suddenly, in the wake of wrapping paper carnage, it’s over. The volcanic explosion of desire, spent.

But if we truly remember Mary’s story, we remember that our waiting is not over.  In fact, it has only begun. We are waiting for the world to reject its savior and we are still waiting for the pain of our own refining upon Christ’s return. So it is with trembling and trepidation, but also with deep, abiding hope, that we sing this Advent season, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

[1] Paula Gooder, The Meaning is in the Waiting, 124.

Lindsey Long is the Abbess and Director of Blackburn House, an intentional community in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.  She and her housemates help lead worship at Blackburn’s Chapel UMC, cultivate a community garden and attempt to live life together.