BY: Kathleen E. Frey
“No mother is a stranger to another anywhere.” —Norma Farber*
With the advent season fully underway, I can’t help but think of her. Most think of Jesus, and rightly so. But this year, my attention is consistently drawn to Mary as well. I think what triggered this was the adorable felt-doll nativity scene I bought at Hobby Lobby (50% off!). My boys and I sat on the floor playing with the three kings and the Holy Family. Of course, they wanted me to play the mommy. She was perfectly sweet with soft, dark hair and rosy cheeks. She looked great for having just had a baby! We were having fun wobbling our footless dolls around the manger when I had the desire to pull a book that doesn’t exist from my shelf. A different type of nativity story. Maybe, an addendum to the Biblical story of his birth. A mother’s story…
We read of the long journey. The full inns, the manger, and the swaddling clothes. The humble nature of this holy and kingly birth. We sing songs of the silent, holy night. We send the romanticized Christmas cards, set up the picturesque Nativity scenes, build the adorable craft kits and watch the movies. I’ll never stop partaking in these traditions. I love them all and so do my kids. But, for some inexplicable reason, my inner-self is calling bluff this year. I’m longing for something not just to believe in (because I already do), but something to relate to.
We’re used to a quintessential baby Jesus— pink-cheeked, eyes wide-open, smiling, soft curly-Q hair and the chubby body of a six-month- old. But, we mothers know…newborns usually only smile because they’re gassy. We know even the biggest babies are born so very tiny. Their skin is sometimes jaundiced, but right away they might look a little red or purple or splotchy. They come out sticky and slippery with blood and vernix. The whole scene’s a mess, but nonetheless, incredible.
I think about my own labors and deliveries. The writhing and deep breathing and sweating. So much sweat. The dizziness and tearing and bloodiness and screaming. The agony and joy. The brutal beauty of it all. I have never felt both so weak and so strong at the same time. And, whenever one of my sisters or friends has a baby, I ask, “What’s the birth story?” Like soldiers sharing war stories, there’s camaraderie in the tales and solidarity within our unique experiences. I wish I could sit and have a cuppa with Mary and ask for her story first-hand.
I wonder if she’d tell me about soreness and fatigue? Riding a donkey for a long journey, full-term…yikes. Or about the excitement and panic of feeling the contractions begin and her water break? Would she talk about squeezing the hell out of Joseph’s hand? The stench of the animals and scratch of the straw bed? The sweating, the crying, the praying? Probably not any cursing.
I’d tell her, while I give birth, I repeat “The Hail Mary” over and over in my head. I also count things (and can tell you my last room had 88 ceiling tiles). I say an “Our Father” every so often, just to be safe, but I feel like it’s more her sort-of-thing. That would make her smile. She’d tell me how long it took for Jesus. I’d say my first took 14 hours. I’d ask, “when Jesus was born, did Joseph bother to say, ‘It’s a boy!’” I suppose not…so what did he say? What did you say? What did you think? And how did Jesus look to you, his mother?
I’d love to hear her recall that moment. The relief followed by the last excruciating push and the cry—the sweet, beautiful cry of a tiny mouth gulping in its first breath of earth-side air. The first glance of his small, scrunched face with eyes shut tight against the cold brightness of the world. His tiny fingers spread apart, arms reaching for someone he trusts is there.
Tell me, Mary, about the instant, all-consuming love for your son. How, in that moment and any moment after, you would die for him if need be.
I want to know of the warmth you felt in holding him against your bare skin. The peace of breathing in the sweet smell of his head.
I want to hear of the first time you nursed him. The wonder of knowing you gave him life with your milk. How he knew, instinctively, what to do. As did you.
Tell me about his soothing-quirks. Did Jesus suck his thumb? Pull his ears? Did he like to rub the warm, soft skin of your arm as he drifted off to sleep? Squeeze your thumb in his tiny grasp? Did he like his baby-fine hair gently stroked? One of mine liked to pick my fingernails away from my skin. So sweet. Ouchy. But, sweet.
Joseph was there. As were the animals, angels, shepherds, and kings. God, too. How would it be to hear of that moment when Mary felt like it was just her and her son? It does exist for only a moment. After that, we have to share our baby with the world. Mary had to share her son in a way much bigger than the rest. We know it pleased her to please God, but the thought of Jesus’ inevitable pain must have been so very heavy. Surely, Mary had the gift of that moment before remembering her son belonged to the world…right? I choose to believe so.
I choose to believe she lived in that moment, deeply. That she could return to it each time she felt the pull to nurture his hurts—the bruise of a stumbling toddler, the scraped knee of a boy running too fast, the wounds from a crown of thorns and nails through hands. That she could still remember what it felt like to hold him close, smell his hair, feel his soft skin. To listen to him whimper in his sleep and say, “you’re safe, little one.” That she could still fully feel like a mother, even to the son of God.
Each time a new person was born of me, I became a new person as well. God intends it this way. I’ve read it—childbirth is punishment for Eve’s sin. Yeah, it hurts. But, not all pain is all punishment. In fact, I’d argue most pain is not. The pain doesn’t hold a candle to the gift of bearing a child. God knew this, and so our savior, the most perfect gift, was born of pain—a woman’s pain.
Yes, Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of our king, our savior. I think it’s also worthwhile to think of it as a celebration of motherhood, of the bond between mother and child, and how God chose this relationship to bring forth His son because there’s nothing else quite like it.
We read of Jesus’ birth, of his childhood flee to Egypt, and how as an adolescent, he wandered off to the temple to be in his Father’s house. From there, he is suddenly a man in ministry, and three years later, crucified. Maybe most of the time in between his birth and ministry was just for Mary to hold him close? Like a family photo album for their own private hearts, she didn’t need to share his first words, first steps, first trials. In this sense, the vague depiction of his infancy and childhood is sort of nice.
Still, I wish I could read, or ask Mary directly, about her love for her son—not just as Jesus Christ, but as the fragile babe she met first. I wish I could listen to her describe how she was made a new person through motherhood. I cannot, but I’ll tell you what I can do:
I can be thankful for my sons’ births. Not just thankful for the results—these amazing people whom I love unconditionally and immeasurably. I can be thankful for the experience in and of its brutal and beautiful self. It’s the closest means I have to imagining how Mary must have felt. In this way, I feel I know her, and you, and Jesus more intimately. Motherhood is a gift from God, indeed—a gift of knowing through feeling. With the first child, a mother is born as well. So, from one mother to another, Mary, Merry Christmas.
*The opening quote comes from a poem/ picture book I stumbled upon serendipitously, after having written this piece. It’s a simple, lovely book entitled “All Those Mothers at the Manger” by Norma Farber.