This year, Advent feels very different to me. That’s because I’ll be entering the season heavily pregnant, expecting a baby that could be born any day in December. If I go overdue I could even be in hospital around Christmas Day.
It has been a long wait. “It feels like you’ve been pregnant forever,” said a friend the other day. “Tell me about it,” I replied. Pregnant women wait. That’s what we do. At first, we wait for the right time to tell loved ones. Then we wait for the sickness to pass. We wait for scans and tests. We wait for the quickening – those reassuring flutters and kicks. We wait, never quite knowing if everything’s OK but trusting that it is. Finally, we wait for signs of labour. We wait for midwives. We wait for that first cry, and for the news that it’s a healthy boy or a girl.
Advent and pregnancy have much in common. Both are a time of expectant waiting and preparation, and both culminate in the joyful celebration of nativity. There are differences, of course. Four weeks is much shorter than nine months, and not a lot of fasting goes on in pregnancy, that’s for sure. But spiritually both are a journey towards birth.
Pregnancy is a spiritual journey. It has to be. It’s a time of huge changes, emotionally and physically. It’s a time of entering into a vocation, motherhood, and it’s also a time of entering into a mystery: new life. It requires a period of adjustment.
I remember the moment when it really hit me that I was having an actual baby. Daft as it sounds, although I could feel flutters and movement, I couldn’t believe that there was an actual human being in there. It seemed too outlandish. Then, one evening in my third trimester, after a particularly long and stressful day on my feet, I had a hot bath and flopped onto the bed, completely exhausted and unable to move. I became aware of the silence, of my own breathing and of this strange new sensation – another heartbeat, beating steadily, but at a different rhythm to my own and somewhere below my rib cage. All of a sudden I felt connected to life in a previously unimagined way. New life – what a mystery. And what a privilege to be given the gift of taking part in it. I could feel life flowing through me, through to a body completely separate to my own, but a body to which I was nonetheless connected – and from that other body out into the whole world.
From that moment on I started to adjust and became more proactive. Previously I’d only got as far as walking into John Lewis’s baby department, looking around and bursting into tears, overwhelmed by it all. Cot? Pram? Changing unit? Moses basket? Feeding? Baby clothes? How was I going to afford all this stuff, let alone reach a point where I felt ready to assemble it all in preparation? Did I pull myself together and give myself a good talking to? No, I did what any self-respecting Catholic woman does in a crisis: I found the nearest church, lit a candle and said a prayer. And somehow, between then and now, it all became do-able. Friends turned up with baby clothes. Family members offered to buy various bits and pieces. Secondhand shops were miraculously stocked with the right things at bargain prices. My own veritable Joseph handed me his credit card and left me to it in Mothercare. Amazingly, things got done.
It just needed a period of time for my situation to sink in before I could tackle it.
Now I’m prepared, it’s just a case of waiting. It’s in the waiting that I feel like I’m experiencing this Advent season from a fresh angle, from Mary’s perspective as an expectant mother. Mary waited with such grace and patience. If Joseph had asked me, in my third trimester, to hop on a donkey and travel miles and miles without so much as a B&B booking at the other end, I’d have had a few choice words for him. Mary? She accepted it all serenely and without complaint. Childbirth in a stable, without a midwife? She took it all in her stride. She waited patiently and took what came, as it came. I’m filled with a whole new admiration and respect for her. Here I am, tired and fractious, worrying about how I’ll cope in labour, and how I’ll cope with a newborn, yet there was Mary without an NHS hospital on her doorstep or midwives to attend to her, and she never worried because she trusted that God would provide. She never doubted it. How many of us really approach Advent as Mary approached it? In the run-up to Christmas it always seems like there’s so much to get done. Presents to be bought, cards to be sent, food to get in. The preparation can be so absorbing that it’s hard to find a moment to be aware of the silence in which you can hear a mysterious heartbeat, aware of the strangely absent presence that marks the coming of a special person waiting to be born.
This year I’ve been forced to slow down and trust in God that things will be accomplished in the fullness of time. Waiting is difficult though. I haven’t got Mary’s serenity. I’m still stressing about where I’ll be when labour starts, and whether I’ll be brave enough to get through the pain, and at the same time wishing labour would hurry up so that the discomforts of late pregnancy could be over already.
But pregnancy, like Advent, is on God’s time. It’s time needed for a baby to grow, and it’s time for those who await the baby to grow in faith. It’s an opportunity to become freshly aware of the mystery of the incarnation and of how we are all connected through the blessing of new life.