The gift of pain (Third Advent 2018)

Christmas gifts. Buying them can be a chore. Giving and receiving them, however, can be a delight. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of seeing someone you love beam with joy over receiving something they really wanted but didn’t expect to get.

When Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, did she receive the news of Christmas as a gift? I doubt it.

Gabriel’s opening words sound encouraging enough: “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28, CEB). But Mary’s reaction was one of confusion and fear — a common response in Scripture to the visitation of angels. Gabriel reassured her, then dropped the bomb: she would be the mother of long-awaited Messiah, the one from the line of David whose kingdom will never end.

Even more confused, Mary wondered aloud how she, a virgin, was supposed to become pregnant. Gabriel told her that it would happen through the Holy Spirit (as if that would make sense to her!), and that nothing was impossible for God. To prove the point, he announced that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant with her first baby (the boy who would grow up to become John the Baptist).

Mary’s response to all of this is a classic example of humility and faithfulness: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (Luke 1:38). Gabriel left, and Mary ran off to see Elizabeth for herself.

Over the next several months, Mary would learn more and more about what she had gotten herself into. When she arrived at her cousin’s house, Elizabeth’s baby leapt for joy in her womb, prompting a prophetic outburst from Elizabeth and an answering song of praise from Mary (Luke 1:39-55). When Jesus was born, she, Joseph, and the baby were visited by shepherds who reported what angels had told them: this child was Christ the Lord (Luke 2:8-20).

When Mary and Joseph brought the baby to Jerusalem for his dedication, an elderly prophet named Simeon swept the baby into his arms, praising God that he had finally been allowed to see the coming of God’s salvation. He blessed them, and then uttered this dark prophecy: “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:34-35).

To be the mother of the Messiah? That’s one thing. To be pierced with a sword? That’s something else.

We can’t know what Mary understood of the prophecy at the time. But over the years, she watched her son’s fame grow. She watched the virulence of the opposition grow with it. And finally, at the foot of the cross, as she watched her miracle-born beloved son be pierced himself, she understood.

She knew the pain.

That doesn’t sound like much of a gift.

It’s been 25 years now since the publication of physician Paul Brand’s memoir, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants. In it, he tells of his work with lepers whose disease had taken away their ability to feel pain in their feet. Lacking the normal warning signals of pain, they would injure themselves without knowing it. Wounds would be left to fester, sometimes to the point that amputation became necessary.

Pain is inherently unpleasant; that is its nature and function. But Brand also wanted people to know that a life without pain could also be horrific.

Can pain therefore be welcomed as a gift?

I know that might sound like a stretch. I have friends and family, for example, who suffer from debilitating pain due to chronic medical conditions. I would never say to them, “Hey, cheer up! Pain is a gift, you know.”

Still, as I meditate on Mary’s faithfulness in welcoming her God-given role as the mother of the Messiah, I have to wonder about the complicated relationship between suffering and joy.

We’re not used to thinking of pain and joy living side by side. We may even want to keep our Christmas celebrations as  little oases of happiness in the midst of the bother of everyday life.

But that’s not how real joy works.

I don’t know that I’d want to call pain itself a “gift.” Certainly, in this broken world we live in, we need our pain. But we are also promised a new and fully redeemed world in which pain will be no more (Rev 21:4).

That promise is what makes it possible to rejoice even in the midst of pain. For Mary, what we know as Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter were all deeply and personally significant, all part of a single story of hope in the midst of sorrow, pointing toward a future of everlasting joy.

May we, like Mary, learn to treasure such things in our hearts.