The Season of Pregnancy: Advent, Ambiguity, and Longing for God

by Lauren Smelser White Last week, Tokens blog contributor Chris Haw shared a lovely piece that he wrote on Advent. As I read it, I found myself deeply appreciating that Chris used the image of an expectant mother to plumb the depths of Advent, this “season of pregnancy.” His doing so provided a refreshing read, and not only because we don’t hear enough from men about pregnancy beyond scientific analysis. I more so found his piece refreshing because, for Chris, the pregnant woman’s body as a spiritual symbol is ambiguous—it acts as a “glorious icon” of divinity’s “dazzling fullness,” and it evokes the cosmic travail of Romans 8:22, reminding us “that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”

This week, I’d like to press into that ambiguity a bit further, continuing to think about what pregnancy can teach us as we wait on the Lord.[1]

Let’s admit, first off, that humans are lousy at waiting on God. While every society has its own iteration of this lousiness, I’m guessing most of this blog’s readers belong with me to a particular culture, one wherein—thanks to our smartphones and tablets and e-blasts—we don’t have to be good at waiting on much of anything. And our non-waiting apparently affects our experience of the present in some telling ways. Douglas Rushkoff has recently diagnosed us as suffering from “present shock” due to the multitasking our media technologies afford, and I think he’s onto something: If we participate in the digital universe of multi-presence, our sense of the present moment does seem vulnerable to becoming an “always-on urgency,” leaving us feeling “distracted, peripheral, even schizophrenic” as we try to track and contribute to the never-subsiding information wave.[2]

To my mind, the spiritual danger of living with “present shock” is that we may become too comfortable seeking and producing accessible answers, images, and entertainment, without expecting any of the tedium of getting to know one another in person…of pursuing answers hard come by…of mystery. Consequently, we are left with false illusions about the way things really are.

I’d suggest that living under those illusions is akin to what would happen if we saw a pregnant woman only as a glorious symbol of Advent waiting. There are lines of thought in the Christian tradition that so construe the expectant mother: namely, they proclaim that humanity’s capacity for submission to God is fully typified in Mary’s receptive posture at the Annunciation. According to this teaching, because of her receptivity Mary became both literally and archetypically Christ-bearing; her pregnant body, tranquilly waiting to give birth to the Savior, was rendered a pure form whereby Christ became comprehensible to the world.

It seems to me that this talk of Mary’s expectant body being a “pure form” symbolizing “quiet waiting” before God begs a practical question: Did the men (and they were men) who drummed up this teaching think to run it past some women who had actually experienced pregnancy? Because I doubt that those women would have affirmed that they felt like embodied archetypes of obedient tranquility during those nine months…and I doubt that Mary’s experience was much different.

Take it from me: As I write this post I myself am pregnant for the first time, preparing to welcome a child into the world in the late spring. And, at around twenty-one weeks into the forty of pregnancy, I can already testify to a different kind of reality than that which paints pregnancy as a picturesque symbol of submission.

For starters, my pregnancy has not been a time of serene acceptance, as if it were simply washing over me. Rather, to quote from Iris Marion Young, I’ve found that “pregnancy has a temporality of movement, growth, and change,” and I agree that this is because “the pregnant woman experiences herself as a source and a participant in a creative process.”[3] I both desire and fear this process in which I participate—sometimes I experience the growth of the fetus inside me as a lovely, wondrous miracle; other times I react to it as an alarming, grotesque distortion. Young offers an example with which I identify: “In pregnancy my prepregnant body image does not entirely leave my movements…yet it is with the pregnant body that I must move,” she says. “I move as if I could squeeze around chairs and through crowds as I could before, only to find my way blocked by my own body sticking out in front of me. …In attending to my pregnant body in such circumstances, I notice its borders with interest”—sometimes with aesthetic pleasure, sometimes with embarrassment, because of the stares it draws from others.[4]

In pregnancy I feel absurd yet graceful, disoriented yet powerful. I am constantly in flux. The point is: I think any childbearing woman would tell you that the pregnant body experiences anything but a pure, conflict-free process—its discomforts and enchantments go hand-in-hand.

And isn’t it much the same with waiting on God? Those of us with “present shock” are drawn to easy answers, photo-shopped images, and a stable story of humanity’s uncontaminated goodness and God’s clear-cut providence. But that telling of reality is an illusion, like an interpretation of the pregnant body solely as a figure of spiritual tranquility.

Phyllis Chesler testifies that, in the labor and birthing process, it is as if “Time no longer exists. Always, Time holds steady for birth. There is only this rocketing, this labor.”[5] Advent waiting isn’t for a cozy Christmas morning; it’s for the second arrival of Christ, for the apocalyptic non-time for which “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” There is much to celebrate on Christmas morning: Emmanuel has come; God is with us! But Advent waiting isn’t defined exclusively by that delight. It also walks alongside Christ into adulthood, through the horrors of Golgotha. It marvels at the appearance of his resurrected body, glories in reception of the Holy Spirit’s burning fire, and it groans, as in labor pangs, for the risen Lord’s return.

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[1] It is important that I note that, in this piece, I’m thinking particularly of the experience of women who have had the luxury of choosing pregnancy, either by explicitly trying to become pregnant or by positively accepting a pregnancy even if it is unplanned. 

[2] Rushkoff qtd. in Tom Montgomery Fate, review of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, ed. John M. Buchanan, Christian Century, December 11, 2013. 41.

[3] Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like A Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990), 167.

[4] Ibid., 163-64, 165.

[5] Phyllis Chesler, With Child: A Diary of Motherhood (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), 116.

Lauren Smelser White is a Tokens Blog contributer and a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Lauren’s work at Vanderbilt focuses on the transfiguration of desire in the event of Christian revelation and the self-offering activities that sustain cruciform faith. She is also a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form groundbreaking scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.