It has been a long journey, this unorthodox pregnancy that Mary experienced. She was barely a child, perhaps only fourteen, when the Angel came to her and told her what God had in mind. She may not have understood what she was agreeing to when she said “Let it be with me according to God’s will.” She endured the difficult conversation with her parents and her fiancé, who by rights could have broken their betrothal but stood by her. As she began to show in the months that followed, the women in her town gossiped about her, and all she could do was get through their snickering and snide comments. She could not tell them the whole story of this child in her womb.
It must have been exhausting, above and beyond the normal aches and tiredness of carrying a child within you. How do you know a secret so large, so life-changing, and not be able to share it, to shout it all to the world?
Mary was not alone in keeping a secret. This business of an angel coming and saying that a child was on the way didn’t start with Mary…in the Gospel of Luke, the story begins with another annunciation: the angel comes to Zechariah, a priest married to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous people who have had no children, despite all their prayers. They are now beyond child-bearing years. Zechariah is serving at the temple, and when he is in the sanctuary, the angel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are to have a son, who will be named John, who has a special role in God’s work: he will tell of the Lord. Zechariah, not surprisingly, doubts what the angel says…and the angel says, “you didn’t believe the message? Alright, you will be struck mute until the child is born.”
Zechariah comes out of the sanctuary, and he cannot tell anyone what has happened. He cannot tell anyone anything. But shortly thereafter, it becomes clear that the angel was right: Elizabeth is pregnant. Zechariah cannot tell his wife the story of the angel…the secret is within him, unable to be shared.
All Elizabeth knows is that she is finally, after so many years and prayers, pregnant, and she is rejoicing. Perhaps the women in Elizabeth’s town have also gossiped about this surprising turn of events, but no one knows what is going on, except for Zechariah, and he cannot tell.
A secret, unable to be shared.
There’s something of that in every pregnancy, sometimes good, sometimes bad. I recall a mother of a baby in the hospital where I served as a chaplain intern: the baby suffered from a genetic problem that would lead to his early death. His mother was an obstetrician, and knew exactly what the sonogram done early in her pregnancy meant: her child would most likely die. Her doctor suggested termination of the pregnancy, but her religious convictions meant that she could not do this, so she carried the child within her, knowing that his prognosis was poor. She told very few people of her situation, because she knew that many would not understand. Her husband and her priest stood by her side, and after the boy was born, comforted her as they tried medical intervention after intervention until it was clear that nothing more could be done. Perhaps she could have told more people about what was happening with the pregnancy, but she chose to keep the secret. It was something she felt she needed to keep close.
For other folks the secret within a pregnancy is more joyful: twins, or the child’s gender. The child itself is a secret: he or she will reveal elements of personality, gifts and talents, the color of their hair and eyes, only after the birth.
But as the time of birth approaches, perhaps the mother has a sense of who this little one is. Does she kick a lot? Perhaps this is a future soccer player. Does he move at night much more than during the day? Perhaps this is someone who will be a night owl. Does the baby react to spicy food or ice cream? Is that a clue? Perhaps the secrets are being revealed.
For Mary, she of the unorthodox pregnancy, the secret of the child within her is both blessing and a source of curiosity: who will this child be? Will he be an easy baby or a difficult one? Will he know from the first that he is the Son of God, or will this be something that he will be aware of only over time?
It must, indeed, be exhausting…and Mary is tired of the questions she cannot answer, so she takes a little trip to go visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who is surprisingly pregnant in later life, whose husband Zechariah has been struck with some mysterious malady that has taken away his voice.
And as she approaches their home, her cousin comes out to greet her, and cries out, “You are blessed, and the baby in your womb is blessed as well. How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to see me?”
Mary is shocked. How does Elizabeth know that this child she is carrying is the Lord for whom all Israel has prayed?
How is her secret uncovered?
And Elizabeth says, “The baby in my womb jumped for joy when you approached. My child is a promise fulfilled for Zechariah and me, but your child is a promise fulfilled for the whole world.”
Elizabeth knows. What a relief to have someone with whom to share the secret! And they sit and talk and laugh, and Mary stays with Elizabeth for quite some time before returning home as the end of her own pregnancy approaches.
Secrets of the third trimester: all who have babies start to dream and imagine what their child will be like. They may be dreams that express the mother’s hopes and dreams, or they may be dreams that express the mother’s fears, but they all have the intimation of the future in them.
We know in the story of this particular birth story, how the third trimester will end: a journey to Bethlehem, a stable, the birth, the shepherds, the wise men. For us the secret has already been revealed…or so we think.
One of the reasons why we retell this story is that in doing so, we can re-examine the secret revealed, and see if it has something new to teach us. What we hear in the story as children is the joy that the mother feels in cuddling her newborn baby, despite the surroundings, and the mischievous shepherds and their gamboling lambs. What we hear in the story as new parents is the exhaustion of the task completed, the baby delivered, and the question of what will come next in this changed life. What we hear in the story as we are in our advanced years is the poignancy of knowing that they have no idea of what is ahead, and how hard it will be. And in the cracks and crevices of our lives, there are new insights into the meaning of this pregnancy and this birth. Warm milk, pain, light, singing, cold, soft murmuring, all discovered in a simple and familiar story, told the same way as the year before, and yet different somehow.
That is the gift of the Child and of the story: there are secrets that God has for us, that God reveals in God’s own time, as God sees fit. When we try to sort them out ourselves, we get nowhere. But hidden deep within the story are the answers that are made known by the Spirit working within our own hearts.
So even as we face twenty four more hours of preparation, of wrapping and cooking and cleaning and decorating, even as we wonder if our dad will like the gift we bought and if the roast beef will be tender instead of tough, even as we long for the rest on Christmas afternoon when the chaos has subsided, we need to keep our ears open.
If we listen carefully in the coming hours, we will hear a baby’s cry, and in that cry a song that will resonate in our souls in a new way. Secrets will be revealed. We will rejoice, we will feel the child’s presence, we will be changed, even as Mary and Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph were changed…even as that baby changed each day and week and hour in his mother’s womb. Listen for that baby’s cry, and say “Amen!”