God dignified our sufferings when he chose to join us in them—unseen.
Advent is a holy time. Perhaps what I love most is the bittersweet melancholy of it. The almost, but not yet, the ache that points to the greatest fulfillment, the deep darkness punctuated by defiant light. These things fill my heart; they speak in a metaphorical and tangible way of the greatest truth we can ever know: that the darkness is great, but the coming dawn is greater still. In the waiting season, we rejoice and mourn and desire and celebrate—all at the same time.
This Advent, I’ve been struck by a part of the nativity story I had never deeply pondered before. I admit, I’ve become so accustomed to the story of Christ’s birth, that sometimes I think I’ve seen it from every angle. But like every truly great tale, there is layer upon layer of beauty. It seems almost a given at this point after hearing Luke two read so many times that of course the babe was born in a stable and laid in a manger. Of course shepherds worshiped him. Of course he was poor and humble.
But he didn’t have to be.
This was God’s story to write. He could have made the tale of Christ the story of a great man of power, born into the family of the Roman Emperor himself, with comfort, ease, and attention. He still could have lived sinlessly and died sacrificially, even if his life up to that point were more luxurious and comfortable and prominent.
But that wasn’t the choice God made.
Jesus’ birth was hidden.
His life was hard.
Yes, angels sang about him and a glorious star hung over his cradle. But in reality, those few shepherds were a meager drop of all humanity. His coming wasn’t trumpeted wildly in every city. An imperial holiday wasn’t declared.
He came secretly, unobserved by almost anyone. He came not demanding to be known or admired. Most of his life, up until his last years, no one outside of his local community even knew who he was.
He chose a harder path than was absolutely necessary. It was hardship enough to leave the full glory of heaven to enter our world that, regardless of who you are or where you live, is fraught with pain and sadness. But he took a step further: he chose anonymity. He chose a life that was stripped bare of the luxuries he could have pleased himself with until the time of his death.
How completely contrary that is to everything that we impulsively desire! We want our “likes,” our followers, and our name to be known and respected. We want to “make a difference” by changing the whole world. We wouldn’t say we want to be famous, because that sounds selfish and shallow. But in reality, we want to be noticed as we do our works for God. And we want this path of service to be as painless as possible.
Perhaps, though, really making a difference is not glamorous. Perhaps it is in the unseen life—the hidden and unheralded acts of faithful love and sacrifice—that God is with us. Emmanuel, God with us, happened quietly, modestly, “normally.” So it is still today. He comes, not on our Instagram account, or because of how many people read our blog, or due to our popularity or the size of our “ministry.” He is incarnate in the world again when we live as he lived—quietly, sacrificially, and faithfully—honoring the small sphere in which we have been placed.
He comes not when we cling to the easiest path, but when we are willing to suffer for love. Not that we have to go looking for every way to make ourselves miserable and deprive ourselves of pleasure and beauty. God created the universe with order and beauty, he planted within us the capacity to create, senses to enjoy these things, and a soul that is tied to the material world and all of its aesthetics. Beauty and peace and order and loveliness are of God, they are desirable in every way. But what about the hardships both small and large that we all face? I can choose to lean into them with courage and gratitude or I can fight to avoid them at all costs. What if he says I need to forgo that return trip to Scotland I’ve been dreaming of so that he can use that money elsewhere? What if he says it’s time to wade through morning sickness and sleepless nights and the pain of birth again to bring an immortal soul into the world? What if sickness or unexpected bills or sleepless nights or hurtful words or interruptions or slights come tomorrow—or next week? What if the way is covered in rocks and thorns and silence, and my feet are bare and my eyes can’t see where I’m headed? Will I walk on faithfully, doing my best to honor him in the middle of each painful step? Even if I hate it and want it to be over with, will I submit myself to the way he leads? Or will I fight against his path and look for any way possible to escape it? And then again, if he makes my way smooth and peaceful for a time, will I offer that in quiet gratitude to him?
I can’t answer these questions. Not fully. As a stay-at-home mom, my life is certainly hidden. But my sufferings are truly slight. I’ve never carried the weight of a chronic, debilitating illness. I’ve never had to bury one of my sweet children. I’ve never had to release my grip on my husband, my best friend. I don’t know how I would walk along that road. But this Advent, I’m remembering that God dignified our sufferings when he chose to join us in them. I’m hoping and longing for the willingness to submit, to be unknown, to be unnoticed, and to carry whatever inconvenience and frustration and pain he allows me to face with patience and faith. And I’m remembering that because of Emmanuel, because God is with us, no pain or darkness truly goes unseen.