What does it mean to await the birth when we are neither the mother nor the midwife? Reflecting on Joseph accompanying Mary to Bethlehem, I am struck by the difficulty of waiting, of watching, wondering what Christ’s birth, so long expected, will mean and how do we possibly participate?
With the joy and expectation of my own children being born, such expectation was an unnerving waiting. Not sure what to do, I also knew that I could not be idle, but how to be present? While my wife shared of the small and miraculous developments within her and to her over the course of months, I watched amazed, in love, but nevertheless distant. I could not feel the first flutters of the child spin within me, or the pressure of life emerging, overtaking my body.
I could comfort, I could coach, but I was also acutely aware of how indirectly I was present to that infant’s life at such a crucial moment. What I came to understand was that this distance was not a perpetual wall, but a reality that required a new way of being present, of waiting without the satisfaction of knowing that it was my work that made this life possible. My presence could only be comforting, listening, attending, receiving.
Can we imagine Joseph’s expectation as he leads Mary through perilous roads, into an empty city not only with the weight of his wife’s expectations, but a heavenly promise (or command!) ringing in his ears? When he finally settles his beloved wife in the stall, his activity, the certainty of what to do in his appointed task dissolves and all that is left is to wait, to watch, to comfort all the while wondering what will this child bring?
“How can this be?” were Mary’s words when she was first confronted with what her life, her body would become, and so while not pregnant ourselves, perhaps we all stand with Joseph in observing the pains of birth, unnerved and overwhelmed, but nonetheless commanded, exhorted to come alongside, to serve and listen and heed so that God might be born among us. Stripped of our programs and our plans of action, we wait, we comfort, we attend.
We attend not only to our families, our lists, our loved ones, but we attend as well to those for whom waiting is not a seasonal celebration, but a life sentence. We comfort those whose lives are marked by the expectation of pain that has no fruit of children at its end. We wait, we attend, we comfort the poor, the afflicted, the incarcerated, the enslaved, not because our actions save, but because the birth of God means the conception of justice and righteousness in this world and we have been commanded to attend and serve our Lord as he groans in childbirth, ushering in a kingdom of peace that we do not yet know, but is surely coming.