Birthpangs, Middle Acts, and Hell

I’ve watched nearly all of my favorite Christmas movies this season. I still have a couple more to go, but this year I’m having a harder time staying awake for the whole film. Between work, and parenting, and the pace of modern life, I always seem to fall asleep somewhere within the first 45 minutes. I usually wake up at the end, just in time for happily ever after, having missed the middle acts. 

This means I’m sleeping through the bad parts, the conflict, the threat of a ruined Christmas. Pondering this, I realized just how grim some of those middle acts are. 

Think about it. Miracle on 34th Street ends happily, but in the middle acts Santa is institutionalized and put on trial for being criminally kind. In Elf, an estranged son is rejected for similar reasons. In Home Alone parental negligence and crime force a child to defend his own home, alone. 

Then there’s A Christmas Carol which starts grim and stays that way as the Spirits of Christmas past, present, and future confront Scrooge with his moral bankruptcy, and bodily mortality. 

My favorite retelling of that story is the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. In this version the Spirit’s don’t have to do the confrontation. They find George Bailey swimming in a sea of his own mortality. His life had never gone the way he wanted it to. He’s blinded by disappointment, and a run on his bank and impending bankruptcy has left him hopeless and sinking in the depths of despair.

Christmas movie endings are all happy, but the middle acts can be hell. 

Why George Bailey (and I) didn't jump off that bridge. | Watching the Wheels
George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

These stories are not that far fetched. Just this week I heard a report of a scene at an Afghanistan bank in the middle of a nation in collapse that was like Bedford Falls, only worse. It ended with the bank teller holding his head in his hands with no more cash to disperse while meanwhile a million Afghan children are at risk of starvation. 

Our friends in Haiti tell us about the chaotic reality in their streets as well. It can make our problems seem small, and rightly so. And yet, who doesn’t know someone or isn’t themselves in the middle acts of life in one way or another? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just sleep through the middle acts and wake up at the happy ending?

Instead in Advent the church says “Sleepers, awake! Wake up! Stay awake! The middle acts are what being the church in Advent is all about.”

Engraving of the Prophet Micah by Gustave Doré.

The prophet Micah writes at a time of national collapse. As much as the people may want to sleep through the facts of the matter, Micah insists that they wake up, and avoid neither the facts of their situation nor the blame for it. 

Hear, you peoples, all of you;
    listen, O earth, and all that is in it;
and let the Lord God be a witness against you,
For lo, the Lord is coming out of his place,
and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
Then the mountains will melt under him
and the valleys will burst open
like wax near the fire,
like waters poured down a steep place.
All this is for the transgression of Jacob
and for the sins of the house of Israel. 

Micah 1, selected verses

The poetry of the prophets paints a picture as powerful as any movie. Mountains melt, valleys sink into fire. Micah moves from metaphor to metaphor manifesting the moment the people are in, but we can’t help but notice that for Micah this is all a matter of time. 

He preaches powerfully about their present hell but he also points to a future hope. It’s as if the hell they stand in, or will soon face, is not the end, but one of the middle acts of a bigger story. It’s a moment he likens to childbirth.  

Now why do you cry aloud?
have pangs seized you like a woman in labor?
But you, O Bethlehem
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old
from ancient days.
It shall happen when she who is in labor has brought forth; 

This passage is why Luke made sure to include in his Gospel the story of a woman in labor in Bethlehem.

Mary’s birth pangs in Luke 2 are not hers alone, they are the hopes and fears of all the years meeting, colliding in her womb, and being born into the middle acts of existence. This is when and where our dear Christ enters in, in the middle acts of life, which can hurt like hell.

But Bethlehem is not where his story ends. It’s not Bethlehem but Jerusalem where Micah says the king shall reign, where the son of David, son of Mary, son of God is put on trial like a criminal and put to death on a cross. But this is not where his story ends either.

As the Creed declares, after he was crucified, dead, and buried, but before he is raised, he descends into hell. 

As Micah foretold, the Lord comes down, and for him the valleys burst open, like wax near the fire. It is there, in Hell where Peter says Christ proclaims the gospel to the lost souls, even there, in Hell. It’s from there that he is raised on the third day making Hell itself something of a middle act, not the end. 

Fra Angelico - Christ in Limbo (Cell 31) - WGA00548.jpg
Christ in Limbo, Fra Angelico, c. 1441

It’s a remarkable story, but it wasn’t immediately all happily ever after. Early Christians worshiped the risen Christ, but as time went on they noticed they still felt like they were in the middle acts, stuck between Christ’s already resurrection, and the world’s not yet

In the light of Easter the early Christians couldn’t help but ask some Advent questions like, when is the Lord going to save us? It’s a question that lingers with us still. We look around and can’t help but notice that for many, and sometimes for us too, life still seems like a hellish middle act. When shall we be saved? 

Thankfully Paul writes about this. He says in no uncertain terms that those who are in Christ Jesus are already saved, now. But when he elaborates, he borrows a page out of Micah’s book. Paul writes to Advent people suffering persecution, imprisonment, collapse, defeat, and death. While acknowledging and sharing in their suffering he refers to the time they’re in as birthpangs, the birthpangs of a creation longing to be redeemed. In other words, we are all still a little like that woman in labor in Bethlehem. 

To be a Christian is not to blissfully sleep through the middle acts of life, ignoring or explaining away the sufferings of the world. To be a Christian is to live in Advent, to keep awake during these middle acts, to be present to the world’s birthpangs, and in its dark streets, to shine the everlasting light. 

Advent Candles lighted for the fourth Sunday in Advent

In Germany in 1932, around this time of year, German Jews were celebrating Hanukkah as the Nazis were rising to power. One of the required aspects of observing Hanukkah is to shine the light from the menorah publicly so that people walking by can see it. But, there is a provision that in a time of danger the menorah can be placed somewhere more private.

But, as Daniella Greenbaum wrote in the New York Times a few years back, “this escape clause didn’t suffice for Rabbi Dr. Akiva Posner and his wife, Rachel.” Rachel snapped a photo of their menorah on their window sill, shining brightly for all their neighbors to see, while through their window, across the street, there hangs a large Nazi flag.

She took a photograph of the menorah and the flag. On its back, she scribbled in German, “‘Death to Judah’ so the flag says. But the light answers, ‘Judah will live forever.’”

Keep watch, dear friends. Light candles and put them in the windows where your neighbors can see them. Keep watching and, by the grace of God labor on. Labor on in faith, in hope. During these middle acts of life, trust in the Holy Child of Bethlehem, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was crucified, died, and was buried. Trust in the One who descended by Mary’s birthpangs, and descended beyond them into Hell in order that all flesh shall see the salvation of our God. 

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