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Christmas Day reading: Luke 2:1-20
My mother’s favorite holiday song is the classic tune “Mary, Did You Know?”
It’s a beautiful song that really pulls at the heart strings and invites you to consider what might have been happening within Mary during the pregnancy and birth. However, as many have pointed out, the question itself may be misguided.
Of course Mary knew. She knew the baby lodged its foot into her left rib whenever she ate olives. She knew the heartburn she felt every evening during the third trimester was unmatched. She even knew he was about to enter the world before anyone else did because she could literally feel his impending arrival. She knew the Christ child more intimately than perhaps anyone else did because he came from her. His body from her body. His spirit from her spirit.
I’m not making a profound theological claim except to say that perhaps we’re missing the true miracle within this narrative. It isn’t the angelic messengers, the virgin birth or that the shepherds’ sheep didn’t wander off while the shepherds were away. No, the truest miracle is that a young woman gave birth.
The act of creation is and always has been miraculous. Over the last nine months I’ve become all too familiar with this miracle as I’ve watched Brooke, my wife, carry our first child. I’ve listened as she’s described the joyful sensation of feeling the child kick and turn. I’ve watched as she struggled with morning sickness and fatigue. I’ve wondered where she finds the strength and wisdom to care for both herself and this developing human.
This watching, listening and wondering have changed the way I read Luke 2:1-20. I used to recite it by memory for the Christmas program at church. There is a census by some dude in Syria, so Joseph takes his baby-mama on a trip to his hometown and, while they’re away, Mary gives birth. Then some shepherds get a message from angels and go to see little baby Jesus.
It was always a cute story, a mystical story even. Yet as I see our child develop within Brooke’s womb and feel its fingers and feet as it turns, I’m paying attention to the narrative in a different way than I have before.
I’ve focused on Joseph. He is the father and the connection to the Davidic line. I’ve focused on Jesus, who is the “reason for the season.” I’ve even found myself thinking about the shepherds who paid witness to the new Messiah.
It’s like I kept looking for reasons to notice the men in the story all the while overlooking Mary as a secondary character. Well, that changed this Advent. As I read the words “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,” instead of picturing a doting Mary and calm Jesus resting on hay, I envision Mary moving every few seconds because no position feels comfortable. I see Jesus kicking and turning within the womb, actively preparing for the descent into the world.
I imagine Mary began the journey carrying high and, with each successive day, the baby dropped lower and lower. Then, as the late afternoon sun began its descent for the evening, Mary’s movements became more rigid and her breathing became more intentional as the contractions intensified. Shortly after the sun set, Mary’s screams and profanities pierced the otherwise still winter night and, within moments, one phase of Mary’s journey as mother was complete, and the next began.
For perhaps the first time ever, as I read the birth narrative, I see Mary, and I realize she knew all that needed to be known. She knew she was carrying the promise of creation, and it was changing her. Her physiology was permanently altered as a result of the pregnancy and birth because the creative process, the process of cultivating, protecting and nurturing life, must change us.
We don’t have to give birth to experience this change. There are a myriad of ways to engage in the process of creation, which include investing in our own personal healing, standing for those being locked in cages or stepping aside so room is made for other voices.
However, as with pregnancy and birth, the creative process always demands something from us. It must always change us in ways that are uncomfortable or painful. I wonder if we’re willing to pay that price. Mary was willing to say yes, and as a result, she paved the way for Jesus to do the same. Rather than wondering what Mary knew, let’s wonder what we can learn from Mary.
Ben Tapper has a master’s degree in public affairs and an M.Div. He is a chaplain at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, co-founder of the Hear Me Project and blogs at Invisible Truths.