The Surprise Child: The third in a series for Advent and Christmas

For many Christians it has perhaps become commonplace to view Advent as a season of inevitability, a ritual expectation of the birth of the Son of God, surely, but one that lacks suspense. We already know how the story will turn out, dont we? The Holy Family will make it to Bethlehem; they will find a manger; Jesus will be born; everything will run as planned and on schedule. Yet it is worthwhile to recall that Advent celebrates birth, one of the most vulnerable of human moments, and to remind ourselves that Jesus was an unexpected child: Mary had a different life planned for herself and Joseph, not to mention Josephs own hopes and dreams for his family.

What must those cold final months of pregnancy have been like for Mary, away from home and desperate for shelter? In our still male-centered world, we may think more of the coming of Jesus than of the worries and concerns of his mother, who knew a life we often do not admit, one surely full of confusion about her role as well as dreams and fears for her familys well-being and future. Do we give enough attention in our prayer and celebration to her interior lifethis young woman called by forces she did not fully understand to give birth to a child whose coming was shrouded in so much mystery?

I am of an age where my friends and siblings seem to have acquired an incredible fecundity. Not a month goes by without the good news that one or more of them is expecting. Pregnancy involves uncertainty, of course, so they are careful not to make an announcement too soon. Often they communicate the news subtly. A friend declines a glass of wine at dinner; sisters start whispering in the corner at family gatherings; boxes of clothes reappear out of attics and closets, and suddenly everyone realizes the good news. Each time, though, there is worry, but more often than not it is the worry of middle-class Americans supported by family, society and financial security. It is not the worry of an unmarried teenager living at subsistence level in a land under foreign military occupation; it is not that of a woman struggling to avoid public scandal, yet singing a hymn of hope in an environment more suggestive of its opposite.


The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called Marys Magnificat, her response to the angel in Lukes Gospel, the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung, not a Christmas carol or a recitation of pious treacle but a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. The woman who sang that song was not the serene and half-asleep royal figure depicted in Western art over the centuries, but a young woman fully alive in history, whose answer to God had consequences both long-range and immediate for herself, her family and the world.

Some have argued that the church would benefit from further reflection on Marys yes at the Annunciation, acknowledging that a component of every pregnancy, expected or not, should be a womans actively choosing to say yes to the child she will bear. That equation, however, works just as well turned on its head, because we as a church would also profit from reflection on what the angel Gabriel says to Mary in Lukes account: The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. Even the most unplanned of pregnancies, Gabriel tells Mary (and us), enjoys divine protection and care. The implied message is a profound one: Yes, this situation you are in seems impossible, and no one can guarantee you and your child a life without suffering. But you and your child are part of a divine plan, and for this reason, you are never alone. An unexpected child can be treated as a liability or a mistake, not a birth to be anticipated with hymns and celebration, but a problem to be solved. Marys response, though, is exemplary: she embraced her new reality and her new child.

In this Advent season, let us remember and be grateful for the yes Mary gave to that sudden visitor who brought such shocking news. For Marys decision brought life to the world. The child she bore and reared has changed our fates forever. Perhaps the joy and gratitude we bring to the new arrivals in our world give us a starting point for loving Marys son.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jerry Becan
11 years ago
Great article! But....there is an error in identifying Mary's Magnificat with the Annunciation, rather than with the Visitation. Normally, I wouldn't pause to comment, but I have heard this connection twice recently, on classical music programs when a musical version of the Magnificat had been played. I wonder if there is an art or music textbook somewhere that contains the error, and that everybody except me has studied from that textbook!


The latest from america

These appointments are two important steps in the process of reform of the Vatican media.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 18, 2018
We hope this helps all you last-minute shoppers. And, don’t worry: You can also use this list as a last-minute gift guide Feast of the Epiphany (we won’t tell).
Vivian CabreraDecember 17, 2018
Maybe this week you could pray to Joseph and ask him to help you respond to the call of the young man whom he helped to raise.
James Martin, S.J.December 17, 2018