Sunday, December 18, 2016

Time is Short! - Thoughts on a Cosmic Nativity

I believe, it is decidedly unoriginal to say that something out of the book of Revelation is bizarre, but I’m going to anyway: the twelfth chapter of Revelation is really bizarre. Especially during Advent, people are often inundated with renderings and readings of the birth of Christ from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not often do we Christians flip our texts open to the back end of the New Testament to read the other nativity story. You know, it’s the one with a seven-headed dragon, a woman crowned with stars who is dressed in the sun, and an epic spiritual battle between archangels, angels, and demons!

There are many things that could (and have been said) about the meaning, plot, and theological nuances of the Revelation 12. Who is the celestial woman? Where and when did these events occur? Did they occur at all or are John’s words that he saw a “sign” mean they are to be taken metaphorically? To these and many other inquiries, I leave you to your own study. However, there is one thing presented in Revelation 12 that, to me, is not only the central message of the chapter but also encompasses within it a key aspect of the Advent season. That thing is idea of the in-between. 

Here is what I mean. In the last few years, when I ruminate on Revelation’s nativity scene, my mind often lands on a friend I had a few years back, whom I met working at a soup kitchen in Juarez. In homage to the season, I will refer to her as Mary. When I met Mary, she and her husband were expecting a child, and it was evident, with every encounter, that she was overjoyed to be having a baby. As we grew closer with Mary and her family, the group of friends we were a part of experienced many joys in anticipating the arrival of her newborn. There were baby gifts, a growing belly, complaints of achiness and morning sickness, occasionally one of our female friends would even probe Mary’s belly convinced the little tike was kicking her hand.

Soon, however, we started to notice that Mary was having some troubling interactions with some of the other workers at the soup kitchen, other ladies who had been working there for a while. At first, my friends and I just noticed some subtle things like when Mary would talk about her baby in front of certain people, there would be a huff or an eye roll or a head shake. It seemed a little rude, but I just assumed I was misunderstanding their reactions. Not long thereafter, we began to see instances where Mary, obviously distraught, would leave the soup kitchen early after speaking with some of these ladies. Eventually, one day, in the dusty concrete structure that served as our mess hall, we found Mary alone, crying, and angry. When we asked her why she was so upset, she would only tell us that one of the ladies had said something incredibly mean to her. My friends and I decided it was time to get to the bottom of this behavior.

So, the next time we were together working to prepare a lunch, we slyly tried to probe the woman who had supposedly said these things to Mary. She and some of the other workers said that they believed Mary was a liar who was manipulating people into buying her things. They recounted how Mary had claimed to be pregnant many times before and never had a baby! She would occasionally come to the soup kitchen with high hopes that she was with child, and for the first couple times, the ladies said they would celebrate and prepare with Mary. But, this pregnancy being the fourth or fifth iteration of her tale, the women had begun to believe her to be some grand grifter vying for the spoils of rich Americans who would come to serve in the soup kitchen.

None of this made much sense to me. Mary was not poor in the way others were so desperate in the neighborhood, and she never inquired about handouts or the like. Her husband had a steady job, they had a large comfortable home (at least in comparison to her friends and neighbors), and she was usually generous with both her time and money. In fact, in my memory, I was more often on the receiving end of her hospitality and generosity than the other way around. So, I was more than skeptical of what these women at the soup kitchen were telling me. I just didn’t see evidence that the pregnancy was faked. 

Nonetheless, when it came around the time for her to deliver, she simply disappeared. We could not get a hold of her. Maintaining hope, I convinced myself that she was simply recuperating from childbirth and tried to stave-off dread that something terrible had happened during the birth. After a few weeks, with a hung head, and a gaze that was devoid of eye contact, she came around to see us.

She admitted that she did not have a baby, was never actually pregnant, and that this was not the first time such a thing had happened (something she had never told us before). By her telling, every time she thought she was pregnant, she was really convinced that she was! Her body would go through the changes, she would feel that the baby was growing within her, and a sense of expectation would progress in her household. But each time, when birth pangs began, she would rush to the doctor only to arduously find out that her womb was empty. Then, her “symptoms” of pregnancy would slowly dissipate. I have often wondered how she could get so far along before she or any doctor realized that she was having a false pregnancy, but it is not uncommon for women in her area and economic standing to not have the best, or any, access to proper medical care. And although, as I mentioned, she and her husband were better off than many in the area, they would still be considered deeply impoverished by U.S. standards.

The truth is, I believed her. I still do. At the time, my heart ached for her. And now, raising my own children and having had the amazing opportunity to anticipate their coming, my heart actually breaks when I remember walking with her through this situation. I can’t imagine the pain she and her family must have felt when hopes for a child were dashed.

When I think of her now, in connection with Revelation 12, I cannot help but think that this situation poignantly illustrates what Revelation means to tell us and what a large part of Advent means to remind us – we are in the in-between! A large part of Revelation 12 is spent telling how Satan is repeatedly defeated until he is finally thrown to earth where he wages war against “those who keep God’s command and hold fast their testimony about Jesus Christ.” In Contrast, the chapter also tells us that the Christ child was snatched up to the throne of God, which is meant to show Jesus’ true reign in the post-resurrection/ ascension era. Revelation 12 also says that “now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God” and that “[believers] triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony! “ [it. added]. There is a real tension here that John highlights. On the one hand, we ought to expect the hardship that comes from an enemy who continually wages war against us, and yet on the other we have the hope and assurance that the victory is already won.

That is to say, there is tension because we live in-between two Advents. Christ has come, and He will come again; Christ inaugurated his Kingdom when He rose, and we will consummate it when He returns! In the meantime, 1 Peter 5:8-9 tells us, and I believe Revelation 12 confirms, that our enemy prowls around like a lion seeking to devour us! And, although we can rest assured in the power and salvation of the blood of the Lamb, we continually wait for Him to finish what He started. We wait for him to return. Advent is a season to remember what Christ has done and how the Presence of the Lord, in the form of Jesus, broke into our reality to offer redemption and salvation. But, maybe even more, Advent reminds us, as we anticipate Christmas Day, that we perpetually wait for Jesus to come again! 

Was my friend Mary’s ordeal a spiritual attack, a psychological ailment, or simply a by-product of a broken creation? I am not sure. Maybe, it was one or all of these things. What I do know, is that the “time is short.” I hope and pray that she sought and was able to find real healing in the wake of the tragic loss of her baby, even if her child only ever existed in her mind. I also prayerfully hope that she, like many of us in this season of hope, is able to cling to a different sense of expectation as she awaits the arrival of our Lord. In this, I am confident there will come a time when our damn-ed creation will breathe anew, when Mary’s pain will be replaced with joy and everlasting love, when the tears of loss she shed will be forgotten for He will have wiped them away, because then there will be no more mourning or crying or pain.