Around the time I became aware enough of the facts of life to realize that roughly nine months intervened between conception and birth, I also figured out that the Church had cleverly separated the feast of the Annunciation from Christmas by precisely this span.
Years later I was expecting the birth of my own firstborn around Christmastime. It was then I comprehended the special quality of that waiting period. For it is not merely a time of expectancy, like the thousands of years leading up to the birth of the Messiah. It is mingled expectancy and possession, desire and fulfillment. The baby is coming, the baby is already here. I will be having a baby, I am already with child.
Something has been set in motion, yes, but in a special sense the end is in the beginning. It is not like ordering a Christmas present from a catalog and waiting for it to arrive. It is more like making a Christmas present in secret. But that comparison is also faulty, because the child, though developing, is already there. He is not like a piece of knitting, where first you fashion the arms and front and back of a sweater and then you assemble them until finally you end up with something recognizable and wearable.
No, the child is there all along, but he is small and hidden and mysterious, though also close and comforting and curiously satisfying. He is in a sense complete, united, whole, entire, and it is our understanding and experience of him that most needs expansion and development.
In this respect the growing child resembles all those doctrines of the Church present in embryo form by Pentecost and needing only the slow incubation of the centuries to be made fully manifest. They are officially born into the Church at a council or in papal pronouncements, but they were there from the beginning, growing within the body of Holy Mother Church, their contour and significance becoming more and more apparent.
Similarly, Christmas is the birthday of Christ, the eagerly awaited blessed event, occurring in “the fullness of time.” But the Incarnation—that is, God taking on flesh and sharing our human condition—begins with a teenaged girl’s yes to God many months earlier. Soon after his birth, Jesus would be threatened by Herod’s paranoid brutality. Before birth, had he chosen to be conceived in a society like present-day China, he might have been threatened by government-imposed abortion. In either case it would have been the same Incarnate God killed; however short his life span, Jesus would have shared our human condition.
Without the benefit of modern neonatology—sonograms, intrauterine photography, and the like—Mary knew all this. She knew she bore her Redeemer—and not just the promise or hope of a redeemer—throughout the months of waiting. Elizabeth recognized as much when she greeted Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” Jesus would live a life hidden from us from age twelve to about thirty, but much earlier he lived these nine months largely hidden from everyone.
The nine months of the hidden Jesus have much in common with the almost 2,000 years that we have lived with Jesus hidden in different disguise, awaiting the Second Coming when he will reveal himself openly once more. Meanwhile, he keeps us company in a manner so veiled, so secret, that billions of human beings and, alas, millions of fellow Christians do not perceive him there. He abides with us in the Blessed Sacrament. There under the forms of bread and wine we may contemplate him and be relieved of our restless human loneliness, as Mary enjoyed the presence of her beloved God in utero. Like other women who are “expecting” she shared the present with her child as well as the future.
Christmas is over for this year. It is Easter that occupies our minds as we gamely work our way through another Lent. Yet how good it is to have these two feasts, the Annunciation and Easter, so close together, to be reminded of the joyful expectancy that greeted Jesus’ beginnings before we enter into the Passion that is the price of sharing in his Resurrection.
Each Advent we complain about the commercialization of Christmas, the claims on our time and attention, the frenetic schedules, the parties, the shopping and decorating, baking and wrapping and visiting. There is all too little space in today’s Christmas for Jesus to enter into our minds and hearts.
At the end of March, we watch the earth begin to bring forth all the teeming life that has lain hidden within through the cold dark times. We seek to purify ourselves for the greatest of all the Church’s feasts, Easter, the inauguration of the new creation, heralded by Jesus’ emergence from the tomb in a resurrected body. On the brink of this joy we can spare a day to celebrate our Lord’s Incarnation Day, more silent, more secret than that December night in Bethlehem, but as great a cause for rejoicing to all humanity.