While the angels are singing his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.
~Patty Griffin, Mary
The year I studied abroad, my friends and I took a long weekend trip to the Vatican very close to Christmas. Various cardinals held public sermons throughout the day and occasionally the pope would pop in to bless the long line of religious pilgrims. On the day we attended, the sermon was about Genesis 3:16:
To the woman the Lord God said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.”
Not exactly the holiday inspiration I was looking for, but you get what you get. The devout Roman Catholics hold that women will always suffer through birth as punishment for our original sin.
Mary got a loophole. The Immaculate Conception meant that God chose Mary at her birth, graced her as His chosen. Later on, that would come to pass as getting pregnant without having sex. Mary allegedly says, “ I am the maidservant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This version of Mary is meek, obedient without asking questions. Then she births Jesus in a Palestinian barn without any pain or mess. The apocryphal Protoevangelium of James describes Mary’s birth experience as nothing but a burst of bright light, as if attended by an angelic doula. Jesus was in his mother’s arms, no muss, no fuss. This whitewashed version of giving birth did not coincide with the videos I watched in 8th grade gym class or my personal experience. The lesson that Cardinal offered me as an 18 year old was the idea that God wants me to be meekly obedient, a sinless virgin, and a loving mother. This unattainable bar left me religiously unmoored, left out of the story of humanity. Here’s what I know now.
Mary was – and remains – a miracle simply for sharing an enlightened soul with a dark world, a miracle because she was a messy human.
I’ve had sex that resulted in pregnancy. And I have given birth, sweating and screaming and without any drugs to numb the considerable pain. And I have become a parent, feeding my child from my body and giving terrible advice and lying wide-eyed deep in the night worrying about my child’s future.
And all of that is a miracle. When we strip Mary of her passion, blood, milk, terror, sweat, fierceness, and imperfection, we dehumanize her. The patriarchy fears the power of women. It was a 2nd-century committee of men that decided the Christmas story be told with a completely sinless mother, forever setting an unreachable goal for those who are biologically designed to menstruate, carry embryos, and nourish life with their bodies.
Advent, like the last trimester of pregnancy, is a time of waiting. Mary was wholly pregnant, all stretch marks and leaking breasts at this point in the story. She’s terrified in a way only newly expectant mothers can understand. And let’s not forget she’s still a teenager, no more than seventeen and probably closer to twelve. She was carrying a refugee child not fathered by her husband. Her robe was sullied and her hair needed brushing.
Whitewashing the realities of her experience doesn’t elevate the story. It makes it a fairy tale, a beautiful but unreal vision. Give me the real Mary, breasts swollen and umbilical cord bloody as she sees her son for the first time. Not the world’s salvation, but her child. Her salvation, her grace. The same child who would grow to also make mistakes and falter and question. Because Mary and her son are both human. That’s the point. Grace and joy are available to us all because we are human, not despite it. And it’s the contrast of terror and pain and worry that allow grace and joy to be deeply felt.
Mary was a mother, just like me, just like so many of you. Her story should not separate or shame us. It should instead make us jubilantly scream, “Me too!”