This is an essay I wrote and read seven years ago for a Christmas Eve service at my church in Clinton, New Jersey. I come back to it every year and remember. This year I thought I would share with the blog world.
An Ordinary Woman
As a child, Christmas morning was always an exercise in delayed gratification. I’d heard stories about kids running screaming from their beds early Christmas morning to dive into the presents under the tree. This was not the case in our house. And while the temptation was always strong, our family tradition made waiting all the more sweet. On Christmas morning, Mom would make a special breakfast and afterwards we would troop into the living room, choose our “spots” and Dad would open the Bible to read the shepherds’ account from Luke and the story of the Wisemen from Matthew. Only after a family prayer (which seemed endless) did the present opening commence.
This tradition is one that has settled into my adult life and I’ve made it a habit to read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth during Christmas. The story is so familiar I can probably recite the details by heart. Yet, each year the Holy Spirit highlights something new. This year, for obvious reasons, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering Mary.
A couple of days before Thanksgiving I visited a Christmas shop and, as I browsed the displays of ornaments, I saw a figurine of Joseph leading a donkey carrying a very pregnant Mary towards Bethlehem. I too was well along in my pregnancy—only days away from giving birth to my own son—and I winced thinking about the discomfort she must have felt. Yet, the face of the figurine was glowing with rapturous peace and contentment. After my own experience of labor, I’ve come to believe that our common conception of Mary is a fairytale. She always looks in the same: a quiet, calm, smiling young woman who never shows a moment of discomfort or anxiety. In Christmas pageants, fairytale Mary rarely speaks but she always looks angelic wearing her inevitable blue bed sheet and carrying a plastic baby doll from the church nursery—fairytale Baby Jesus—who is equally meek and mild: “no crying he makes?” What child IS this?
Fairytales are fine in their place. But if I believe the Bible—and I do—that Jesus laid aside His deity to become fully human, then I have to believe that He, the King of kings and Lord of lords, cried and had colic and made messes. And Mary, the one chosen to bear the Son of God, was not an angel in disguise but an ordinary woman who gave birth in pain and must have felt the same fears and frustrations and fatigue that every mother since Eve has felt.
As I sit rocking my baby in the middle of the night and praying he’ll fall asleep, I wonder: How did she do it? Malicious gossip at the start of her pregnancy, a long trip by foot and by hoof from Nazareth to Bethlehem in her third trimester, a drafty barn with animals standing in attendance as she struggled through labor, rough herdsmen as her first visitors, and then, only a couple years later, a midnight run to Egypt to escape murderous Herod. Mary was no mild lightweight—she was tough! She knew trials and hardships I will never encounter. And perhaps it was these early days of her son’s life that helped her to cope with the last days of his life. And I have to wonder, how did she do it?
Every parent wants to believe that their son or daughter is extraordinary. Mary had the joyful and terrifying knowledge that her son was indeed extraordinary. He was the One, the Messiah. The Holy Son of God. And she, Mary, was given the charge of raising this frail infant. I lay my own sleeping son down in his crib, grateful for the peace and marveling at the miracle of life. Feelings of inadequacy war with the feelings of wonder. I know that Mary must have felt the same as she stared into the sleeping face of Jesus. And it occurs to me that in the treasures she stored in her heart was the shimmering hint of God’s plan for humankind found in this miracle baby.
As she looked into the face of the child in the manger, she knew she was not alone. Through the tangible grace of a heavenly Father who sees us as we are—people lost and in need of saving—humankind was given the best gift of all: Emmanuel, God with us. He stands here now, just as He stood beside Mary and Joseph in that stable in Bethlehem. That is how Mary coped: the knowledge of God’s presence that freely offers peace to those on whom his favor rests.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).