As we wind the last part of the advent journey, rounding the corner to Christmas, we come to focus on love. This is always the place where the nativity story…the way we traditionally tell it…gets on my nerves. I realize it might sound like total sacrilege to say that as we pull together toward the grand celebration. But, stick with me here as I take this journey of thought.
We have a certain western view on love….some Cupid with an arrow, smitten with bliss, walking on clouds and rainbows kind of love. We depict the Holy Family in this loving bliss. As I write, the lovely porcelain bisque crèche in my parents’ house speaks of this love. Mary has perfect hands, an idyllic expression of bliss, and garments that fall in perfect soft folds against soft, sweet smelling hay. Joseph stands, looking down with loving expression on mother and child. The quiet, docile animals keep loving guard over the family while a gentle Shepard carries a lamb and a sweet singing angel looks on. The bisque nativity, while beautiful, depicts the kind of love that makes me queezy and spiritually nauseaous, as one might feel after indulging on too many sugary holiday sweets.
Here is how I see the actual scene unfolding:
Mary, like most first-time pregnant women, had been having stress dreams about how all this birthing was going to actually come together. I mean, it took angelic intervention and a lot of deep breathing to adjust to the reality of this pregnancy in the first place. Mercifully, her cousin Elizabeth also had her back and kept her joy abounding, undoubtedly passing the womanly wisdom of childbearing secrets in the months between their due dates. All that would be stressful enough, but Joseph’s support had come just in time to learn they needed to make a trek to Bethlehem. Who wants to travel so far from home when birth is near? If anyone had reason to stress, it was Mary. Not only do I wonder if she worried, I know she did. I know she was charged with nervous energy, because the most natural thing in the world as pregnancy draws to its culmination is to want to nest: to get all the details ready and perfectly situated for a new little life about to enter this world. That is prenatal love, filled with the desire to set the stage in readiness for the new arrival. Every Mom I know…rich, poor, working, on bed rest, those who worked hard to get pregnant, those who fell into it seemly effortlessly, and even those for whom many facets of who, when, why and how about the pregnancy remain a mystery: we reach a point where we want to nest. We must nest. It is nature’s way of transforming our bodies from hosting to caregiving. While trekking to Bethlehem, without a doubt in my mind, Mary was nesting. She was making every plan, for every contingency. She probably found and made the swaddling clothes and considered all the alternatives she might employ when that moment would come, as she knew it would, when it stopped being within her control. She had said yes to this divine role a long time ago, it seemed. And now, she was doing her part and readying as best she could for what was to come. And that act of nesting and preparing for the ultimate letting go of life developing in one’s body to emerge as a new being into this world…well, that act is pure love. Love incarnate.
I picture this maternal love spilling over into some worried moments where place after place had no where for the young couple to sleep. Describing Mary as “Great with Child” in the language I grew up hearing also reveals something about this state of their anticipatory worry and impending delivery anxiety in the holy family. That “great with child” phrase was like saying she was “big as a house” or “ready to pop” which is likely to be greeted by any pregnant woman with a scowl on a good day. So, while Joseph looked for housing describing her condition, Mary remained calm. She did not go ballistic even if she may have inwardly been groaning. She was nesting, and she knew they needed a space to safely deliver. Her womanly wisdom told her that her time was near, and she could put up with whatever was necessary to get a space. That tolerance is pure love. Divine love. Love unconditional.
Then, there is the whole stable thing. Really, that was probably not Mary’s Plan A or B or C. Or D. No woman pictures delivery in a barn, especially when she was told she was blessed among women. Blessed women would have a comfortable place to birth. Holy, pure women would have clean surroundings, with space to labor both walking and in all the positions that help the pregnancy proceed smoothly. Right? Not for Mary. Stone. Straw. Olive wood. Sand. Animals. Manure. Feed. Love in messy, painful, imperfect form. Love reaching out, making room for grace. Love that, if delivered there, can be received anywhere.
My own time with childbearing women tells me how important the birth story is. Women….including me…can tell every detail of their birth story. I wish, truly, that I could hear Mary’s birth story of Jesus in her own voice, her own words. That has been lost with time, but it was undoubtedly real. I imagine her encounters with the divine during the labor and delivery of Jesus solidified all that she had come to faithfully come to know and believe. I don’t know how long she labored, who helped her, who held her hand, to whom and for whom she cried out for, whether Joseph was allowed at the scene, or what she did to move through the sometimes endless times of transition that are needed to allow the birth to progress. But, we do hear that Mary treasured all she observed…the signs, the wonders, and (in my version), the birth story, too. She treasured these things and pondered them in her heart. That phrase is immaculate, selfless, divine maternal love. All of the pregnancy, the preparation, the messiness and pain…all for the loving act of bringing life into being. Love abiding with us, dwelling incarnate within us.
This is the scene of love into which I walk these final days of advent.
Divine, incarnate love.