Advent Reflection 8: Barren

Luke 1:6-7 “[Zachariah and Elizabeth] were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.”

Barrenness is of course a fertility problem. Biologically it refers to a womb that cannot support embryonic life. Agriculturally it refers to a land that cannot support crop life. Metaphorically it proves to be a most portable word. It was evidently a favorite of the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who spoke of barren efforts and barren shores and barren crags and barren lives and ultimately of a barren Death:

Wiser there than you, that crowning barren Death as lord of all,    

Deem this over-tragic drama’s closing curtain is the pall!

Lord Tennyson is right. Barrenness finds its way into every nook and cranny of this world and our experience of it. And that is because theologically barrenness is the state of creation this side of Eden.

The world is duplicitous in its grandeur and its terror, its beauty and violence, in its capacity to provide for the unseen sparrow and its capacity to turn to ice. Creation is groaning in labor and in suffocation, the sign that is more than a sign that Mother Nature is ever losing her battle with Father Time. We live in a world and in bodies and in communities that simply cannot support life. Every home so rich with memory will slowly start to lose touch and eventually will be left alone. No more children giggling their way into the master bedroom on Saturday morning. No frenzy of life in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day frantically filling every dish and basket and platter with an attempt to keep the past alive. No one to say “Mom” or “Dad” or “You’re grounded!” or “Pass the jam”–just the occasional “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when the phone rings. Then calls come only for “Mrs.”, with condolences. Then the phone just stops ringing.

Life inside the walls gives way to a damningly exact proportion of grief. But soon no one is even left to cry. What was home will now house only an empty memory, maybe a few moths. Every birth certificate already shares its name with a death certificate. The world is our womb, and it is barren, every life a miscarriage.

But God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. And he does not just hurl the world into a space sufficient to sustain it. He creates formless void (Gen. 1:2), a barren womb, a world that he would himself have to fill in order to sustain life, a world that would have to be filled with him and so could be filled with joy. Apart from him this world will always return back to the joyless void, but with him always back to a feast of life. So God creates from the very beginning a world in which he can be born, and thus a world in which we can be born again.

So as we wait upon the Lord, we should not look for him to come to places full of strategy and competence and men in dark suits. He comes where the efforts are barren and the ground is chapped. Slaves in Egypt became a nation in the desert. God had come. Out of barren wombs the child of promise is born to Sarah, the child of prophecy to Elizabeth, the “Voice in the Wilderness” born to a father who could not speak. God had come.

Out of nowhere the substitute came to Abraham for his son on Mount Moriah. Out of the Virgin the Substitute came to Israel for all sons on Mount Calvary. God has come.

And God is coming again. Isaiah says we’ll know it is God because the cracked desert floor will begin blooming like a daisy field in springtime; the groaning ground of the curse will suddenly burst into song (Isa. 35). Scorched war fields will become spring-fed gardens (Isa. 58); swords and spears will be beaten into the shape of life and kept in the barn (Isa. 2). He said that lions and tigers and bears would go vegan and siesta with lambs and yearlings (Isa. 11). There will be life where there can be no life, peace where there can be only blood, a symphony filling canyon winds. Paul says we’ll know it is God because when he comes he will lay death down to sleep, pray the Lord its hell to keep. We’ll wake up one day without aching joints and pressing deadlines. We’ll see mirrors we’re not ashamed of (1 Cor. 15).

John says we’ll know it is God because of what happens to the brokenhearted. The little boy whose dad was sent home in the form of a flag; the young mother of that boy looking helpless at his searching eyes; the little girl who never wore white. We’ll know it is God not because the brokenhearted will suddenly stop crying but because their tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). They will be touched by a real Hand and there will be a resurrection of real hands. Those searching eyes will find what they never stopped looking for. It will be like a world ruled by the real religion that James talked about (Ja. 1:27).

John also says we’ll know it is God because it will be like a Bridegroom and a Father and a Son and like a world full of siblings (Rev. 21-22), like wedding reception and a family reunion all at once (Rev. 19:6). It will just be a mess of an overflow. Loneliness won’t even fit in a crack on the floor. There will be no storm shelters or panic rooms, no sirens or seatbelts, no temples or mosques, no shut doors or closed countries, no walls, no gun control, no guns, no abortions, no greed, no partisanship, no voting booths, no border patrol, no arrogance, no bumper stickers, no child soldiers, no fatherlessness, no websites, no shrapnel, no midnight calls, no divorce, no mistrust, no shame, no shadows, no small caskets, no more God-damned goodbyes: only God, only Light, only peace, only joy, infinite joy drowning the void beneath the weight of the “glory of the Lord that fills the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14), and us—with a Table there at the center to keep the past alive for good (Rev. 21:21-23).

When Christ comes, he comes to dethrone the one called “barren Death” crowned “lord of all” by burying the crimson of His crown in a deeper crimson bloom of roses. Yes, every knee, Death–so Death, be not proud (Donne)! For He is the “firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15) and therefore the “firstborn of the dead” (Col. 1:18), so he will again descend into this barren womb, but this time to give birth. When “the Lord descends from heaven…the dead in Christ shall rise” (1 Thess. 4:16). And on that day, the world will be an ultrasound devoid of any dark, born again into the womb of eternal life together with the eternally Begotten Son of God. No more miscarriages.

When he comes…

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise, 

Weaved in my low devout melancholy,

Thou which of good, hast, yea art treasury,

All changing unchanged Ancient of days,

But do not, with a vile crown of frail bays,

Reward thy muse’s white sincerity,

But what thy thorny crown gained, that give me,

A crown of glory, which doth flower always;

The ends crown our works, but thou crown’st our ends,

For, at our end begins our endless rest,

This first last end, now zealously possessed,

With a strong sober thirst, my soul attends.

‘Tis time that heart and voice be lifted high,

Salvation to all that will is nigh. 

     ~ John Donne, La Corona 


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