Several weeks ago, I got the joyous news from my son Jonny and his wife Emily that they were expecting a baby. They had been trying for a while, so they were very excited, and I was excited with them. Not long after, Jonny called, and the tone in his voice intimated the bad news: Emily had a miscarriage.
Recently, Emily “opened up” about the whole experience in an article that she wrote. As I read, with tears in my eyes, her transparently honest account of her feelings during and after her brief pregnancy, and thought of other friends who long for a child, I reflected on how the whole experience captures many of the desires and longings that are at the heart of Advent. (Since many persons can relate to this, I’ve attached Emily’s article below if you’d like to read it).
Indeed, barren wombs and miscarriages are vivid reminders that we live in a broken world, a world that still needs healing, a world where the last enemy has not yet been fully conquered. It is a world that longs for the coming of a baby. One of the verses of my favorite Advent hymn expresses the longing this way:
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
The biblical narrative is notably marked by stories of women and men who long for children, who have been promised them, and of the joy that comes only when those promises are fulfilled. Think of Abraham and Sarah, who were promised many descendants when he was called at the age of 75 (Genesis 12:1-9). The promised child, however, was a long time in coming and the wait was at times agonizing. Years later, after the initial promise, no child had come, and when God reiterated the promise, Abraham pointedly asked, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless” (Genesis 15:2). It was not until Abraham was 100 years old that the promised son was finally born (Genesis 21:5).
Later, there is barren Rachel, also desperate for a child, who cried out, “give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1). Her longing was finally answered with the birth of Joseph. And then there is heartbroken, weeping Hannah, whose tears of grief only dried when Samuel was born (I Samuel 1).
All of these are types or foreshadowing of the birth of the Son of God. All of these women longing for children are an image of a fallen world yearning for redemption.
Indeed, there is something deeply Trinitrian about the longing for children, a longing that is a reflection of the deepest ground of reality, the eternal love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Contemporary philosopher Richard Swinburne has argued that one reason to believe God is a Trinity is that the most perfect love is not that shared only by two persons, but rather, a mutual love that overflows into love for another. The desire of parents to love and be loved by a child is an emblem of Trinity
It is our separation from the God of Trinitarian love that makes us yearn for the coming of the baby who will save us. We long not only to love, but also to be loved, by perfect love.
Moreover, even in a world where that baby has come we yearn for him to come again, to complete the work of salvation he has begun. In light of the larger Biblical narrative, it should not surprise us that Paul pictures our longing in a still fallen world where salvation has only begun, as the groaning of a mother in childbirth
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption. For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:22-25).
Hope is a two edged sword and it cuts both ways. There is nothing worse than hopelessness, but at the same time, hope is a profound acknowledgment that all is not well. To hope is to admit the yearning for “what we do not see” even as “we wait for it with patience.” It is to acknowledge the groaning in our breast.
So whether we know the joy of having children, or yearn to know that joy, we join our hearts in hope. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”