We associate Christmas with joy and, indeed, it is right to do so. In the parts of the world where winter days are dark and cold, people seek hope and light.
As a chaplain and therapist, I know the darkness is not only literally present in certain months but figuratively manifest at any time. I have walked sacred ground with people in the desolate seasons of life. I have learned that joy only makes sense, and light is most desperately sought, when everything seems darkest.
Within the human story of joy and sorrow, a unique moment shines: a young woman, around the age of my own daughter, looks into the eyes of her infant for the first time.
Science teaches us what happens in those first gazes. Every moment of eye contact builds neural structures. Every response to a baby’s cry builds trust.
So it must have been for Mary and Joseph and their baby, Jesus.
A friend texted me about the expected birth of his grandchild. “I kind of miss the days with my little ones,” he said.
“I do, too,” I replied.
When we say that, I think we’re saying we want to love them more. We want to love them little again. More than that, as we get to know our children, we want to love in them the parts of ourselves we have a hard time loving.
Children allow us to see ourselves more clearly than almost anything else. How we respond to that vision of ourselves — weak, small, vulnerable, loud, afraid — says much about us.
I think of the young woman looking into the eyes of her infant for the first time. In this winter scene (imagine it however you like) we meet a young woman caught in the tides of her faith, the religious structures of her time, the oppression of a Roman army — and so very far from her mother, her grandmother and her home.
I imagine, as she looks into the eyes of her infant, that she is beginning to understand herself differently. She is now not just one, but the mother of One — the image of God holding hope in her arms, nourishing the child, rocking the child, seeing not just herself but the wonder and chaos of the world.
She knows, as all parents know, that nothing is promised. The life we hold in our arms is fragile, breakable, mortal — and no less beloved for it.
Mary is mother and all mothers, looking into the eyes of the divine, falling in love with her child. Falling in love with the wonder within. Falling in love with the human within. Seeing herself, and the whole of the universe, in a shared gaze.
Suzanne Wolcott is a social worker and member of McPherson Church of the Brethren in Kansas.