Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

The great gender reveal

Rev. Dr. Elmo D. Familiaran

December 17, 2019

“And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’” 

Luke 1:28-33 (NRSV)

When my wife was pregnant with each of our two children, I was always asked by many if I knew the gender of our baby in her womb. Our children were born in the ‘80s when ultrasound technology was already available that could determine the gender of a fetus in utero. Both my wife and I were always of the same mind to choose not to know. We both reveled in and wholeheartedly embraced the mystery of not knowing when it comes to childbirth, and considered the discipline of waiting in anticipation as a gift.

Since then, American popular culture and medical technology have only continued to change. The science of prenatal care in America is now state of the art, even though such care is still not within reach of many Americans who live in isolated places or who do not have health insurance.

American popular culture is now routinely awash in gender reveal parties and rituals. Some of the rituals even take the form of risky stunts. Last year, for example, an off-duty border patrol agent was ordered to pay more than $8 million in restitution after his gender reveal caused a forest fire in Arizona. In September of this year, a pilot who was flying a plane at a low altitude as part of an elaborate gender reveal for a friend, crashed in Texas. The pilot dumped 350 gallons of pink water from the plane, but the plane was too low and immediately stalled. The pilot was not injured in the crash, but the plane’s other passenger had minor injuries. And a month later in October, a family in Iowa inadvertently built a pipe bomb for a gender reveal party that exploded and killed a grandmother. These are just the latest in a string of gender reveal stunts that have ended in injury, and even deaths.

It would seem that the value of the spiritual discipline of choosing not to know ahead of time the gender of one’s child – opting instead to embrace the discipline of waiting, of anticipating, of expecting – is receding from the horizon of our national and cultural psyche. The strong argument of proponents of the practice of knowing and disclosing the gender of the infant ahead of its birth is based, it seems, primarily on pragmatic considerations, such as: “It helps us to prepare the nursery appropriately, the color of the paint, the types of accoutrements to assemble”; or, “It helps us to know what clothing to purchase ahead of time, and to alert friends and family what gifts to bring at the baby shower.” I have felt earlier on that folks who choose to know the gender of their babies before birth are depriving themselves of a profound spiritual gift. I used to think that choosing not to know ahead of time the gender of the baby that we were expecting brought us closer to the meaning of Advent.

But, alas, it turns out that God is the greatest gender revealer, dispatching the angel Gabriel to announce to Joseph and Mary that they were going to have a son! It has dawned on me that the meaning of the Christian season of Advent – and why we must rehearse it every year as part of the church’s liturgical life – far transcends (what turns out to be) the mundane practice of choosing not to know ahead of time the gender of one’s baby ahead of its birth. Equally mundane are the gender reveal rituals we now routinely see in popular culture.

I often wonder during every Advent season what “expecting” must have been like for Mary and Joseph after the annunciation of the angel Gabriel. In that dark, quiet, livestock stable that they found being the only available refuge in the days before the birth of Jesus – and while Mary already must have already started feeling some intermittent labor pains – in those moments, the authentic Christian root of the season of Advent was laid.

I often wonder during every Advent season what “expecting” must have been like for Mary and Joseph after the annunciation of the angel Gabriel. In that dark, quiet, livestock stable that they found being the only available refuge in the days before the birth of Jesus – and while Mary already must have already started feeling some intermittent labor pains – in those moments, the authentic Christian root of the season of Advent was laid.

Through the narratives of the gospels, it is always easy for me to imagine the mixture of emotions imploding in their lives at that very moment – the fresh and vivid memory in their hearts of the awesome visitation from the angel Gabriel; the flight to Egypt in self-imposed exile to escape the genocidal Roman client king, Herod, who had issued an edict to slaughter all infant sons two years old and younger; and living a life in the margins as second-class human beings under the tyrannical emperor Caesar and his vassal clients. For Mary and Joseph, those days must have been days full of swirling existential fusion of awe, dread, fear, and wonder. Rome was the imperial power in the world of Jesus’ birth, wielding absolute and tyrannical power over its subjects, and whose violent impulses used slaves (including Hebrews) as entertainment in brutal blood sports. The Good News, the evangelion, entered a world full of bad news and ugliness.

The entire Bible, from beginning to end, testifies that God’s saving will for the world emanates from God’s love, God’s agape. And this loving intent reaches its decisive manifestation in God coming to us in the person of Jesus. God’s love animates all of scripture – from out of the shadow of the arrogance and the lust for power of the Tower of Babel and the darkness of pagan religion, God calls a nondescript villager named Abraham to give birth to a people of faith; a people from whom Moses was raised and called to free them later on from their enslavement; and now to God coming fully to be like us in Jesus, in the “Word becoming flesh,” who announced in Luke 4:18 that his primary mission is “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”

The Christian liturgical calendar is organized around two major pillars of sacred time – from Advent to Pentecost, and then from Pentecost to Advent. It is no accident that the Christian liturgical year officially begins on the first Sunday of Advent. As our churches intentionally reenter the spiritual discipline of commemorating God’s coming into history in the person of Jesus, we not only submit to a ritual re-enactment of the crescendo of joyful and hopeful anticipation leading up to the birth of Jesus, but – more importantly – we renew our spiritual journeys with the core message of the gospel – that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” (John 3:16). God’s self-emptying, the humbling of the divine self in the grand mystery of the Incarnation, is the bedrock of our faith. This is where all of the Christian faith begins.

But how stark the contrast and the paradox. The announcement of the good news of Jesus’ birth comes alongside the pains and fears of a broken world. God’s loving redemptive will for the world comes to us through his desired flesh and blood presence in the person of Jesus, born of a lowly handmaiden, whose birth is first announced not to royalty dwelling in gilded palaces, but to lowly shepherds “abiding in the fields.” In humanity’s sin and fallenness we see that violence in all its forms have entered the world – hate, idolatry, greed, avarice, corruption, and the oppression of the weak and the powerless. It is in this reality that God’s love entered the world in its fullness in Jesus, and continues to be present in the power of the Holy Spirit.

And so it is, that the good news can only be authentically proclaimed audaciously if, at the same time, it unflinchingly confronts the many faces of our yet broken world. The great gender reveal of the Advent season does not only mean relishing the sounds of Christmas carols as they usher us gently in front of our warm fireplaces, or enjoying the tinsels adoring the stores and the malls, or opening presents under the Christmas tree. These are all the joys of the Advent season and Christmas, yes. But they all would be meaningless if they are not preceded by the contemplation of the brokenness of the world for which God came. These would all be meaningless if they are not preceded by a penitential reflection of how we have participated in the perpetuation of the many injustices in the spaces that we inhabit.

When Mary, in Luke 1:46-55, exulted into her song after the annunciation of the angel Gabriel, it was not because of the revelation of the gender of her soon to be born child per se. Known in the gospels as the “Magnificat” – so named from the first words in the Latin translation of the text, Magnificat anima mea Dominum, which means in English, “My soul magnifies the Lord” – her song was a hymn of praise to God for the fulfillment of his promise of covenant kindness as prophesied in scripture, now manifested through his ultimate chosen path of incarnational presence. God’s promise of companionship is now sealed in flesh and blood presence! And so Advent is not only about waiting (which could be a passive act), but about expecting. In other words, Advent as expectation is the animating anticipation of certitude over what already has been accomplished.

This is the great expectation of the certitude that we celebrate during Advent season – that God’s love in Jesus is the hope of the world. Gods loving reign is already here, in our midst. Gods love is present everywhere. The very nature of Gods love and presence always finds expression in the righting of what is wrong, in repairing what is broken in all of creation, in reconciling what has been cast adrift from human community. The face of this love is justice, and compassion its power. Holy work is hard work. At times it leaves scars on the faithful, like stigmata resembling the wounds of the crucified Jesus. But it is to this ongoing task that Gods people are called. Love suffers because it cares; it grieves because it loves.

The Advent expectation for Christians is consummated in the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, the time when the great hymn proclaims, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” What must the voice of the church be? The real ugliness in the world is fear. Fear is the mother of hate, and hate has many offspring – injustice, avarice, genocide, bigotry, violence. The first words of the gospel is the announcement of the angels, “Fear not!” In one way, the words acknowledge the presence and familiarity of fear in the world. In another, it is an audacious rebuke and subjugation of its illusory power. Fear cannot drown out the words of the Prince of Peace. They are the very words the world needs. As for us, we are called to be makers of shalom, makers of peace. We are to be proclaimers and embodied ambassadors of Christ’s love – the sacrificial love that came not to condemn the world, but to save it; the sacrificial love that cannot but express itself in the righting of wrongs; the sacrificial love that continues to call each one of us to participate in, and physically commit to, the ongoing work of love of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Finally, the words of another great hymn, Christmas Bells, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, help to frame the spiritual necessity of understanding the expectation of the Advent season as a paradox of God’s love:

“And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men! Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.’”

Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer, and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross-cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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