She longed for a baby. Oh how she longed! The desire was irrepressible, something primordial that forced itself upon her, an obsession that consumed her every waking hour. All her younger female friends seemed to get pregnant at will, planning their families like scheduling family vacations. Some of them even whined about surprise pregnancies, conversations that secretly tormented her. The sight of mothers strolling their babies, of little ones chasing about the playground under their mothers’ watchful eyes — these once endearing sights now thrust stabbing pains to her heart. She had gone through all the tests, both she and her husband, but found nothing physiologically wrong with either of them. She had prayed so fervently, taken fertility treatments, planned love making around a carefully monitored biological schedule, done everything short of artificial laboratory conception, and still no baby. She wondered why God would be doing this to her — placing within her such powerful desires and then frustrating them at every turn. Across town another young woman had just received some devastating news. She was pregnant. How could this have happened? She and her boyfriend had been careful, she thought. What were her parents going to say! The kids at school!! Her high hopes of making the varsity cheerleading squad had disintegrated the moment she heard the doctor’s report. Oh NO — this was just too terrible for words. For the first time in her young, happy-go-lucky life, she entertained thoughts of suicide, and the unimaginable — abortion. It was not that she didn’t love the baby’s father. He was a great guy. But they were both too young to be parents. He had plans to go on to college when he graduated and she, well, any dreams she might have had were gone now. “My God! ” she cried out. “What am I going to do? ”
Two women, one with an overwhelming, unfulfilled desire to have a child, the other terrified by the reality of an unexpected pregnancy. It is tragic irony. And in one variation or another, similar dramas are played out a thousand times each day in every culture in every land. Giving life is the most primal of human instincts, entwined with emotions so powerful and complex as to defy untangling. Desire, dread, obsession, fear, euphoria, guilt, uncertainty, wonder…perhaps all of these in confusing cacophony. And so it has been for as long as history can be remembered. The creation of life comes as close to a god-like capacity as any human act. Little wonder that abortion and stem-cell research and embryonic storage are such highly volatile issues for us, filled with ethical dilemmas, theological disagreement and political dispute.
Should it surprise us that the Christmas story, set in the midst of political and theological intrigue, would involve the most basic of human concerns — the drama of childbirth?
Elizabeth, known by pitying neighbors as the barren one, had longed for a baby all of her adult life. But as her childbearing years slipped past, her hopes gradually faded and a sorrowful though not bitter resignation crept into her soul. Her faithful husband Zachariah, a Levite, resigned himself, too, to the reality that no prodigy of his would carry on his priestly lineage. Elizabeth, like other women in the community, could not understand why God would place such a powerful desire within her only to frustrate it year after year. Such a thing is truly a curse. And without remedy.
Elizabeth’s young cousin, on the other hand, had such a promising future mapped out ahead of her. Mary was just entering her childbearing years and was already engaged to an upstanding man of her village. In due time she would marry and start a family. It was a bit intimidating to think about assuming wifely duties at such an early age. But other girls did it without complaint, at least those fortunate enough to be pledged to a decent local man who was a good provider. And Mary’s husband-to-be was both.
And then the unimaginable happened. Both women became pregnant! For Elizabeth, given her advanced years, it was pure miracle. Oh joy of joys! The exciting word spread like a prairie fire across the Judean hill country reaching all the way to the courts of the temple in Jerusalem. Elizabeth, the barren one, was with child! Her endless years of longing would finally be satisfied. She was going to have a baby!
Meanwhile, up the road in rural Galilee, her young cousin Mary was nearly paralyzed with fear. A stranger named Gabriel (a messenger from God, he said) had come to her house and told her that this would happen — that God would make her pregnant. This was good news, he assured her, and told her not to be afraid. But she was afraid. Terrified! Who wouldn’t be? A virgin girl promised to an honorable man who was waiting until the wedding bed to consummate their relationship — how could she ever explain this to him?! To her family! She would be publicly disgraced. No one would ever again want her for a wife.
To Mary’s great relief, her husband-to-be received a word from God to go ahead and marry her, thus saving her from disgrace. Mary and Elizabeth have a rapturous reunion, both carrying within them miracle babies predestined to change the course of history. Their words of ecstasy still resound across the centuries. Both embrace the pain of childbirth and experience the sheer delight of bearing healthy sons, sons named by Yahweh: John the baptizer and Jesus the messiah.
But the human drama is not utopian, at least not for very long. The mothers narrowly escape threats on their baby’s lives from a paranoid, half-mad tyrant. Then as their boys grow older, other worries roll in like ominous storm clouds. The mothers watch helplessly as their young men pull away to grapple with a divine sense of calling, dangerous callings that would lead them down perilous paths. And in the end, two broken-hearted mothers endure the horror of seeing their precious, innocent boys executed — one beheaded and the other crucified.
If there is one word to be distilled from the Christmas story, it is Immanuel. God with us. God enters into the midst of the human drama with all its tenderness and terror, its exhilaration and devastation, and participates with us in the full, unedited range of human experience. He enters quietly, to unsuspecting individuals, without public fanfare. He reveals Himself in both blissful elation and in troubling perplexity. His appearance takes people off guard, is often baffling, but always life-changing. Immanuel. Indeed, He is with us still.