The book What to Expect When You’re Expecting has been called "the bible of American Pregnancy.” Originally published in 1984 and now in its fifth edition, the book has a seemingly permanent place on the New York Times bestseller list. The “What to Expect” industry—for that’s what it has become—also features a website and a mobile app.
Despite the book’s influence and outsized popularity, not everyone is a fan. The poet Katie Manning wrote a poem called “What to Expect” comprised of nothing but alphabetical listings in the book’s index.
The poem is revealing, repetitive, comprehensive, somewhat depressing, and—how shall I say this?—long.
Check out these lines from the poem:
Expect accidents. Expect acne, additives, age, and airbags. … Expect bruises. … Expect dance workouts and death. … Expect embarrassment. … Expect hair. Expect outside influences. … Expect smells. … Expect tai chi, tears, and ticks. … Expect vaporizers, vegetables, and vision.
You get the idea.
All in all the poem uses the word “expect” 63 times and lists some 146 different things to expect.
But the book on which the poem is based, the so-called “bible on pregnancy” that purports to tell expectant parents virtually everything they can expect to happen in the course of pregnancy, infancy, toddlerhood, and, well, life—says absolutely nothing about expecting that a child is living proof of God’s emphatic statement that humanity, for all its faults, should go on. The book says not a thing about expecting that the child you claim to be yours—through birth, adoption, fostering, guardianship, or a legally unrecognized but fierce love—will grow up to make a significant mark on the world. And it certainly doesn’t say anything about expecting the life of your child, grandchild, godchild, niece, nephew, second cousin, or the child of friends or community or church to change the course of history.
And yet that is exactly what the grand story of the Holy Bible tells us to expect. It is precisely what the long arc of our scriptures has to teach us—not only at Advent or Christmas, and not only when we’re talking about Jesus of Nazareth as God’s love made flesh:
That throughout human history, the Holy One has created, commissioned, and empowered each and every person born to be a light for the world. That the divine blessing of life unto generation after generation extends across races, tribes, and nationalities, across religions and genders, classes and circumstances. And that, just as often as not, God’s love is manifest in individuals and through circumstances that we do not expect.
Now, I want to be very clear here: This lineage of light and blessing, this participation in the furtherance of humans made in the divine image, this communal bending of the arc of history toward healing and hope, peace and justice, joy and love is not limited to the parents or grandparents of children.
Maybe you, like me, really wanted to have children but—for a variety or reasons (or a combination of reasons)—did not or could not. Or maybe you never wanted to have your own children or to adopt someone else’s.
Our scriptures were written at a time when both the biological and cultural options for bearing and raising children were quite limited and circumscribed.
I want to suggest that those of us who have no children of our own can also contribute to the birth and fulfillment of children and the blessing of the world: with everything from our tax dollars and our social justice work to the ministries of teaching, caregiving, community building, and love. I also want to suggest that the Bible’s focus on having children can be understood as a metaphor for birthing and nurturing all manner of progeny—from vocations and pets to projects, dreams, causes, and generosity.
God comes alive in us and in the world in all of these ways and more. God’s love and hope for humanity is expressed in all those ways and more. But there’s almost nothing more clearly tangible and relatable than the birth of a child. And so it is that in the grandest story of all, that’s how the truest truths are told: through the lives of humans, especially those who find themselves on the outside or at the bottom of society, and through the births of children, especially those who were unexpected or came into the world in extraordinary ways.
And so it is that our scriptures tell this story again and again: through the slave woman Hagar; through the old and supposedly barren woman Sarah; through Leah and Rebekkah; through Tamar, who was impregnated by her father-in-law; through Hannah, mother of Samuel; through the unnamed mother of Samson; through a prostitute named Rahab; through Ruth, a Moabite; and then, finally, through an old, apparently infertile priest’s wife named Elizabeth and a young, unmarried girl named Mary.
(And if you think I’m making all this up or making entirely too much of it, I commend to you the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which recounts the full genealogy of Jesus the Messiah but names just four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary. They, as much as their children, changed the course of history. And we, as much as whatever human or other progeny we have, have also been called and blessed by God to move humanity toward the fulfillment of God’s dream of love and wholeness, peace, justice, and redemption for all of creation. Thy kingdom come, we pray, on earth as it is in heaven.)
All of this is worth celebrating, which is what the child in Elizabeth’s womb does when it hears the voice of the mother of Jesus. Which is what Elizabeth and Mary do as they share the joys and challenges of pregnancy and discuss their hopes and dreams for their children.
But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that Mary and Elizabeth spent the next three months together comparing cravings and complaining about swollen ankles. As we will hear next week, the story goes on to suggest that these strong and faithful women were also dreaming of the turning of the world, a holy uprising for which their sons would prepare the way.
Elizabeth, after all, had spent much of her long life telling and passing down the stories. And Mary had heard the stories all her young life: how her people had been saved time and again through this incomplete woman or that flawed man. She had learned of burning bushes and holy silence, of dreams and signs, liars and cheats, murderers, adulterers, and prostitutes who were called by God to do extraordinary things. She could recite the places and times when God had brought down the mighty, lifted up the lowly, and made the impossible imaginable.
More than that, all her life Mary had been told that God wasn’t finished yet, that God’s Anointed One would be coming soon. More than that, everyone Mary knew—and everyone they knew—had spent their lives longing and looking for God’s Chosen One. For generations they had all been waiting for the revealing of God’s glory, for the deliverance of God’s people and the redemption of all creation.
And yet Mary had never thought salvation would come through her.
Until it did.
If we would but heed the lessons of our faith, if we, too, would pass on the stories and promises of our faith, our children and grandchildren, and generations yet to come would know the stories that would stand them in good stead in hard times, the promises that would keep them watching for the light in the darkest night.
If we, too, would persist in hope, and watch and wait expectantly to see the amazing ways that God lives with us and works wonders of healing and reconciliation, we, too, might discover that God loves to work through lives like ours.
So let us make room in our hearts for Christ to be born anew. Let us live in hope. Let us tell and ponder the stories. Let us prepare the way for the revealing of God’s glory—love and community, peace and justice—in our families and out in the world.
And let us live as if we expect that God will fulfill God’s promises—in us, through us, for us, and for all creation.