On Being Like Mary

Mary is many things to many people. Visions of her apparitions are wildly different, and depending on one’s denomination – and one’s politics – interpretations of her vary greatly. For some, she is exalted as obedient to God’s will, as full of grace, and as immaculate. This is the vision of her as God’s regal intercessor, the majestic Blessed Mother. For others, she is the subaltern, reminding us to see and seek social justice in unexpected places. In this vision, she is a scared teen mother without resources, an outcast unsure of how society will treat her, much less her mysterious and questionable son. 

I've thought of her as all of these things over my faith journey. But this Christmas, large with child myself, I’m meditating on Mary as brave. 

All things considered, Mary was a woman who, accompanied by only her husband, withstood unmedicated labor contractions on the back of a donkey as they traversed bumpy desert roads in the freezing winter night. Not only was this couple young, poor, and alone, their fate was to give birth next to animals, and as animals do - on hay, in a manger.  

This was a rough and raw birth with no fetal monitors, no epidural. No lactation consultant. 

Joseph was profoundly important here, and his role often goes unnoticed. Without giving his partner his support and presence, the Christ child might not have been. Mary might have, as many women do even today, died in childbirth, leaving the Son of God alone, helpless, and hungry. Joseph committed to helping Mary in the process, even though the child wasn’t physically his. And that’s bravery. 

As the clock of my pregnancy ticks full term this Saturday, I also hope to show the bravery and faith in God that Mary and Joseph did. I'm not going into a manger, but am going into the wild wonder of birth, and the unknown. My husband and I live far away from our families, and with insulin-dependent gestational diabetes, questions and worries about whether a long birth will render the baby hypoglycemic, about the health of the placenta, and other issues can get overwhelming. It can be scary, even with fetal monitors. 

But perhaps that’s where the Christmas message lies: claiming the gift of self-love and guidance.  Giving the big stuff over to God, and re-organizing our spiritual houses around discipline, grace, and trust. 

To do so, what if we saw all the mothers giving birth this season as Marys? Not as consumers with visions of onesies dancing in their heads, but with people with enough bravery and grit to show up to themselves, to their lives, and to God? To go beyond being the Big Lady who can’t do much beyond sleep, eat, and groan with Braxton-Hicks contractions - who can’t travel to celebrate and give gifts to family - and know ourselves instead as holy?

This means following our own internal north stars into the birth and into the light, into all that Mary can and does mean: blessed among women, yet challenged at the same time. 

Having children is hard enough, but the U.S.’ disgraceful maternity laws, having children is incredibly hard for too many American women. Many women giving birth this holiday season are working on their feet, only to return to work less than a week after the baby is born, because they can’t afford the time off. They can’t breastfeed their children because they can’t afford a maternity leave: that is what our economy gives these brave women, and it’s shameful. Metaphorically speaking, stewards of the next generation are not only giving birth but continuing to raise their child in the equivalent of a manger.  

Yet, something higher than us pulls us to embark bravely on this labor of love anyway. As On Being columnist Courtney E. Martin reminded us a few weeks back with her column 
You Began in Love (or Someone Once Wiped Your Ass Over and Over Again), every human life starts with immense love. In giving birth and raising children, we are all nurturing our own princes and princesses of peace, conceived in immaculately human ways. 

In doing this, what we’re making room for in our lives is the child, but also Love itself. And, by rhetorical extension, God. 

Love of self, love of God, and love of other. That holy trinity of residencies. 

One of my favorite Advent songs is People Look East. As the lyrics say, 

People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way