I went to a carol service last night expecting to have a warm Christmassy experience, and to some extent I did. I’ve read enough feminist theology to have plenty of woman-centric Advent and Christmas messages floating around my mind. There’s a lot about Mary, Mary’s yes, Mary pondering things in her heart.
I used to really like that, as a teenager with a deep interest in women’s independence and zero interest in sex. I made lots of nativity scenes but had trouble making the Joseph figure because my idea of the perfect family was mother and child, no men around. I usually put him in the back taking care of the donkey.
I loved being pregnant at Christmas time, loved the whole season echoing the expectancy of pregnancy. I loved the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the description of the baby leaping in her womb, that feeling so familiar. The lessons and carols I went to yesterday used the word “womb” five times (in Latin or English). How many religious occasions get that gynecological?
But there’s nothing to douse these feelings like hearing the actual Bible interspersed with medieval Marian texts. Mary didn’t say yes, for one thing — Gabriel has already informed her that she will get pregnant when she says that’s all right with her. And the medieval texts are very clear that it’s her purity from the sin of Eve and her virginity that are so wonderful.
As a mother, some of these texts now feel like a slap in the face. “Mary’s so great because she produced a baby while a virgin, not like all those OTHER pregnancies which were caused by SEX,” is basically what I hear. I cried during the carol service for all the people that message has hurt over the centuries.
Another part of the Christmas repertoire that doesn’t quite add up for me is the emphasis on the infant Jesus’s divine humility. I see how it makes sense in a context of an all-powerful being choosing to come to earth in a powerless and vulnerable form, but it somehow never clicks with me because all babies are so vulnerable. When Lily was born I was so enchanted by seeing her tiny blood vessels, like threads, under her skin. A newborn’s windpipe is the size of a drinking straw, a fact which terrified me. All infants are “so tender and mild” while also relentless in their needs. A divine ruler can be a king of kings, more powerful than all others, but a baby can hardly be more fragile than babies already are.
In the spirit of taking joy in the merely real, here are some things I’d like to celebrate at Christmas:
- The tenderness and generosity of parents despite exhaustion and frustration.
- Adoption. There are some nice modern tributes to Joseph as Jesus’ adoptive father.
- Long-wanted pregnancies, IVF, and surrogacy, in honor of Elizabeth conceiving after menopause.
- Filling the hungry with good things.
- The courage of women giving birth.
- The curl of newborn fingers, and the incredible fineness of newborn hair.
- Making do with mangers and whatever else is at hand.
- A church packed with people coming in from the winter night to sing together.
- The miracle of DNA that unfolds a baby from a tadpole, to someone who stares at a bright new world with eyes that can’t yet focus, to a child who can joke and jump, to an adult who can teach and invent and care for others.
- The valiance of refugee parents, like Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to save their son.
- Every stranger on the subway who’s smiled at my babies and tried to make them laugh, like so many shepherds and angels paying their dues.