One of the most memorable nights of my life came when I received a phone call from my sister, telling me she was pregnant. She was young, unmarried, and not yet finished with school, so the news came with not a little trepidation. Another relative called me later that night to talk about this news. To say he was upset would be an understatement.
“She has ruined our perfect family!” Is what he said.
I was taken aback. Perfect? What family was he living in? Our family was about as far from perfect as one could be. Poverty, unemployment, mental illness, domestic violence, drug addiction, and divorce were part of our lives. While most of us had made it through the hard times and managed to do okay, any claim to perfection was just a boldfaced lie.
We weren’t perfect and she didn’t “ruin” us. Sure, things had certainly not gone according to plan. Sure, a challenging road lay ahead, but the fact of the matter is that a new life was coming into our midst, and that’s something worth celebrating. [Side note: this is why it is so important to always lead with congratulations whenever we hear news of a pregnancy, even when it’s unexpected.] We should take a hint from Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45 and pronounce a blessing over the mother and the new life that is coming into the world.
The pressure to be (or at least appear to be) perfect comes down on us in many different forms. For some, it might be related to performance at work or at school. For others, it might be the pressure to have a perfect body. It might also be the pressure to live up to a strict moral code or to be the perfect churchgoer.
For some strange reason, I think many of us (especially Christians) have this idea in our heads that God likes to hang around people who seem to have it all together. We tend to think that if we want God to be present and active in our lives, then we have to get our ducks in a row.
I’d like to test this theory as we examine the lives of two people who were very close with God:
The first is Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, and the other is Mary, who we all know as the mother of Jesus. Did Elizabeth and Mary have “perfect” lives before God decided to change the world through them? Furthermore, did God’s activity transform their lives into the kind of success story we might see on Oprah? The answer to both questions is No.
Elizabeth, we know, was a good-hearted person, but she had a problem: she was getting on in years and she couldn’t have children. While this is a devastating problem that many couples still face in our society, it was doubly-painful for women in first century Jewish culture. The most pressing concern for people in that society was the welfare of the nation as a whole. They thought of themselves as God’s chosen people. The most important thing, then, was to keep the Jewish nation going. Anything that interfered with that process was most troubling. So, for a woman to be unable to bear children would be understood by the people as a sign of God’s rejection of that woman as the mother of future generations.
Elizabeth’s life was about as far from perfect as one could be in first century Judea. Yet, it was in this broken situation that God chose to act. After all hope had been lost, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and informed him that they could soon expect the arrival of a son, who would be named John. What’s more is that this was not to be any ordinary baby, but a prophet who would prepare the people of Israel for massive change.
So God had removed the shame and stigma of childlessness from Elizabeth just in time to help her cousin Mary, whose period of shame was just beginning.
As Mary’s story opens, she seems like she has it all together. Biblical scholars estimate that Mary was probably about 13 or 14 years old at the time. This was the typical age for young girls to get engaged in that society. They believed that women should start having children as soon as they were biologically able. We read elsewhere in the New Testament that her fiancé, Joseph, was a kind and just working man who loved her very much. Mary’s entire life was in front of her and things were looking pretty good.
Than an angel named Gabriel showed up and informed Mary that she was about to have a baby, just like her cousin Elizabeth. It’s ironic that the very news that took away the disgrace of Elizabeth would heap disgrace upon Mary. While Mary herself knew that she had committed no indiscretion, she had a hard time convincing others of that fact. Even Joseph didn’t believe her at first. Not only could Joseph call off their wedding, but she could legally be put to death as an adulteress for fooling around with another man. As the weight of this news settled upon Mary’s shoulders, she packed up and made a hundred mile journey on foot as a lone, unwed, pregnant teenager to the only other person she knew would understand: Elizabeth.
Elizabeth knew what it was like to bear the disgrace of the community for no good reason. Elizabeth knew what it was like to have God do something so incredible in your life that no one in their right mind would believe you if you told them. Elizabeth knew what it was like to be pregnant for the first time under unusual circumstances. Sure enough, it was Elizabeth who was the first to greet Mary by speaking a blessing over her pregnancy. Elizabeth was the first to realize that this baby was a miracle, not a mistake. Elizabeth and Mary became a support network for each other during the next three months. Each of them was God’s gift to the other in the midst of brokenness and chaos.
God was at work in the lives of Elizabeth and Mary, but it looked nothing like what one would expect in polite society. We learn from Elizabeth that God does not reserve God’s presence and activity for those whose lives are seemingly perfect or put together. We learn from Mary that God’s presence and activity in our lives does not necessarily lead to an unqualified success story. The message here is that God meets us in the midst of real life, however painful, broken, imperfect, or messed up it may be.
In the story of my family, our moment of struggle became a moment of triumph. Like Elizabeth and Mary, our family gathered together to support my sister (including that relative who was so indignant at first). My nephew will be seven years old this February. My sister has since written an account of her experience which has been published in a recent volume of Chicken Soup for the Soul. God has met us in the midst of real life and showed us what grace can do.
Here in the nostalgia of the secular holiday season, it can be easy for us to get caught up in illusions of having the perfect family, the perfect gift, the perfect tree, etc. Too often, the Christmas story itself gets presented with all of the messy parts carefully removed. For example, when you walk by a beautifully crafted crèche sitting on a church lawn and see the newborn Christ lying in a manger, do you ever think about what a stable really smells like?
The world that Jesus came to save is this world, the one we live in now. As Eugene Peterson writes, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood”. Your neighborhood. During this Advent season, we are not just preparing to celebrate an event that took place 2,000 years ago; we are preparing to celebrate the good news that God meets us right here in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives. And what’s more is that our messiness does not prevent God from making something good and beautiful, even though we might not be able to see exactly what that is just yet.