Hospitals are holy places. Prayers of joy go forth from the maternity ward—as much as prayers of agony are sent from those who wait in the waiting room. Either way, whether glad or sad, the action from hospitals is more vertical than horizontal. Explanations are demanded from God—and often don't come.
At Christmas, no one wants to be in the hospital. But many are—and the silent starless night, with the sterile shades drawn, can go long. Oddly, a hospital with its multitude of prayers heaven sent and its forced awareness of trouble is a great place to wait out the birth of Jesus. It may even show us a useful Advent attitude: the emergency of humanity may be larger than most of us, most days, realize.
Consider Mary. If she was pregnant today, she'd be getting prenatal care as #847 in the emergency room. She would sit next to the kid with the badly pierced tongue, the mom with the two kids who was nonetheless too dizzy to stay home. The pregnant Mary would be waiting with the old man who forgot how to take his blood pressure and thinks it might be high. She, he, the kids, and the mom would all wait until salvation of a simple kind would appear. These "patients" would finally be "seen." They would finally hear what was wrong. They would be told the degree of their hope. They would hear if "anything" can be done.
Advent is Mary's waiting. It is a spiritual anteroom to a spiritual emergency room. Here we find our baby Christ—and learn our hope. Here our patience yields healing.
Advent is Mary's waiting. She has no insurance; that's why she had to stand in line with the rest. Before Jesus' birth, we had little insurance too. Knowing Jesus can put us on the plan, off the waiting list, out of that new class of poverty known as the "uninsured." At Christmas, after Advent, we go on the plan.
Mary won't necessarily pray the night the baby is born. That night she will compete with the death groan of the woman dying from cancer. God will not know what to do with virginity competing with fatality. Nor will God offer explanations. Instead, God will offer Jesus, a true and full human, as a way to accompany us through these emergencies of life and death.
In Advent we wait for the birth of the birth. We go to the waiting room of the emergency room of humanity. We realize how holy all things are—and we get the assurance and insurance we need.
The last straw of our lives becomes the first straw of Jesus' manger in our hearts. Patients all, we wait.
The Rev. Donna Schaper is senior pastor of Congregational UCC in Coral Gables, Fla. Her latest books are "The Labyrinth from the Inside Out" from Skylights Press and "Spiritual Rock Gardening" from Paulist Press.