[If you missed Dayna’s first post on “Waiting with Hope” check it out here]
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
Luke 1:41- 45
The story of God’s redemption is full of babies – longed for babies, unexpected babies, babies born to women long past the age of fertility, babies that no one could ever have predicted. These babies are almost always a source of delight and joy. Their births are a sign to their parents and their community of God’s presence among them, making something out of nothing. Over and over again God creates ex nihilo – out of nothing – in the wombs of Israel’s women.
And yet, the lives of these babies are not charmed – or even protected – in the ways we would hope or expect. John the Baptist, who leapt in Elizabeth’s womb in response to Mary’s greeting, grew up to be a prophet who was imprisoned and then beheaded by Herod. Jesus’ birth forced Mary and Joseph to become refugees in Egypt. His life ended with torture and execution, while his mother looked on helplessly. Many of the boys born at the same time as these cousins were slaughtered by Herod before their second birthdays.
It’s a story filled with joy, but also a story of some of the deepest pain imaginable, a story almost too horrible in places to tell. It’s a story of desperate parents, of shattering grief, of empty arms. Each of those lives was a gift, a delight, a blessing, a sign of God’s miraculous power to breathe life into human flesh over and over again. And yet, each child was radically vulnerable to the life-crushing powers of suffering and death.
Soon after my husband and I learned that the baby we were expecting had a fatal birth defect (See Dec 6 Post), I discovered a website devoted to telling the stories of families who had welcomed a child with a poor prenatal diagnosis (BeNotAfraid.net). The diagnoses and stories of these families were all different – some children fared far better than expected, while others died before or shortly after birth. Some have thrived and flourished, while others live with disabilities that cause them pain or that will eventually take their lives. But the thread that ran through all the stories was the joy these parents found in their children’s lives. Despite the pain of loving a child with a severe disability, every parent was deeply grateful for the gift of their child’s life.
It seemed very strange to find joy in the life of a child who was not yet born and already dying. How could the life of a dying child be a sign of God’s presence and blessing? How could a child whose body was so profoundly disfigured and disabled be a gift from God? How could we find joy in welcoming a child who would never gain consciousness?
Over the remaining months of my pregnancy with Ethan, I learned this: in order to receive the joy of Ethan’s life, of being his parents, we had to open ourselves to the grief of lamenting his loss. The deeper the joy we took in his life, the deeper the pain of losing him. The more we embraced the hard work of grieving his coming loss, the more we were able to receive the gifts of being his parents and taking joy in his life.
Knowing that his life would be short caused us to slow down and pay attention in ways that we might otherwise never have done. My husband and I spent time each day listening to our son’s heartbeat on a fetal Doppler. We read to him and sang to him and told him the story of our love for him. Even as I grieved, I paused to enjoy my son’s kicks and thumps inside my womb.
What I learned from welcoming Ethan into my life is this: joy is different from happiness. Joy can see and celebrate what is a gift from God in the midst of what is almost unbearable. Joy doesn’t deny or overlook what is painful and grief-filled, but it refuses to let the pain cancel out what is good and beautiful. Joy insists that God is present even in the midst of darkness and death.
Let us pray:
Come Lord Jesus. Give us the strength to welcome your life-giving presence in the midst of darkness and grief. Amen.
Dayna is a member of Durham Mennonite Church (Mennonite Church USA) and part of the Rutba House new monastic community. She and her husband Eric live in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC and are parents of one living son, Noah. Their firstborn son, Ethan, was born and died in 2009. Dayna is hoping this Advent for a heart open to God’s longings for the most vulnerable among us.