A Very Mary Christmas

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
—The Book of John, Chapter One

My first baby was an Advent baby.1 Born just a few days after the Church calendar turned over in late November, she arrived in the thick of Christ’s own birth season. As such, her birthday (and mine too, in a sense) now serves as a preface to all of my Advent meditations, forever changing the way I come into Christmas each year. It invites me to remember the vivid physicality of her birth — its pure wonder and raw intensity — and to ponder the Christmas story in light of it. Particularly the role of Mary, who was singly invited and appointed to aid in bringing deliverance to mankind through her own very natural delivery.  

It is jaw-dropping, in fact, to consider what an unaided stable birth might have actually been like for God’s young handmaiden, bent low in every possible sense of that phrase. And it is equally ponderous to reflect on the magnitude of her faith and obedience in the months before and after that providential night in Bethlehem. First, receiving Christ in her body, bearing Him in her flesh over many months, and then nurturing Him up into adulthood over many years, ending achingly in the cradle of la Pietá.   

It can be easy to glaze over, or feel distant from, the mysterious mechanics of her particular arrangement, to sense ourselves as utterly outside the saintliness of Mary, mother of God. The truth of Christmas is that Mary did not just bear a baby Son named Jesus. She bore in herself the Word, who was with God, and was God, since time immemorial. The very Word by whom all things were made came — issued forth by her — as one who is made. And so at Christmas the invitation for each one of us is likewise not simply to ponder and celebrate the birth of Christ the child as a singular act of creation or salvation. But rather to also ponder and celebrate the birth of Christ as the Word, who continues to speak redemptively and creatively in us and through us still today.  

In that sense, what Mary shows us is not only how to receive and bear forth grace, but also how to receive and bear forth creativity, to image forth in our own bodies and souls those things God wants to birth in us and through us by His Word. What Mary’s posture and example offer us is instruction in what it means to receive the Word into ourselves, to allow it to grow within us for a time, and then, by our labor, to release the Word into the world with care and responsibility. 

And this, of course, is the task of any creative work — to listen and yield, to work and wait, to toil and release, all in time and season. And while many may not self-identify as creative, opting out of its implied burden of artistry, so far as we all bear God’s image as the Creator we each have at least some capacity to create, some capacity to yield to inspiration that comes from outside ourselves, whether it is artistic or not. It may not be in our regular day-to-day or in our paid or formal roles, but in some corner of life there will inevitably be evidence of something other that beckons us to heed it. 

In Mary we see the model for heeding well. At the Annunciation, we see Mary receiving the Word into herself, yielding to that which was at once known and familiar and also, equally, not yet fully known. She is familiar with the Word, practiced in recognizing its voice, and therefore has grown in her capacity to trust it when it calls to her beyond what she can grasp. In contrast, is Zechariah. He, too, was knowledgeable about the Word and yet struck dumb for resisting it when it came to him, silenced for trying to parse its meaning and analyze its probabilities instead of simply taking it in. 

On a recent trip to Portland I briefly met with the art director at a small college and pinned to her wall was a list of rules from her own undergraduate art department that she kept up as a point of reference. Curious, I glanced at the list and blaring out like a siren came Rule #8: “Never try to create and analyze at the same time: they are different processes.” As one prone to hyper-analysis, I bore it as personal judgment. But it has stayed with me.   

And, I believe, it is precisely what sets Mary apart from Zechariah. They both shared knowledge, attentiveness, and watchfulness about the Word. And yet when the question of receptivity arose — will you take the Word in and yield to it? It is only Mary who allows the very power of Creation to come into her and flow through her without raising the barricade of analysis. She is able to rest in a deeper kind of knowing which Zechariah learned instead through silence, by the absence of the Word for a time.

And this, of course, is much of how creativity comes as well. First through the practices and habits of attentiveness that attune one to the particular styles, voices, muses, and mediums of creativity. And then, accepting when it calls. In an interview several years ago on the PBS News Hour, the great American poet Christian Wiman speaks to this kind of receptivity in his own creative life in response to a question about whether or not his faith and his poetry feel connected.  He says: 

. . . I still have that experience [of otherness] writing poems, and don’t understand it and don’t really feel comfortable claiming some poems as my own. They feel autonomous from me. I don’t understand . . . where they come from. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll write a poem. And I’ll be up from 2:00 a.m. until 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. writing a poem and it will make all kinds of connections in my life and have all kinds of complications. And I know this is true of a lot of people. And when it’s done there’s a feeling of enormous release, but also of a kind of distancing from the artifact of it because it’s as if something has been made through me instead of by me. And it’s an ambivalent feeling.  

In his own way, he is giving language to the feelings of receptivity — being at once energized, enervated, and inspired while also retaining a kind of neutral objectivity, a holy ambivalence that takes more pleasure in bearing the message than in citing credit for it. 

And bearing, too, is part of the lesson Mary teaches us. In Greek, Mary is not “Mary” at all but Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” And, rightfully, this is the part of her faithfulness that falls outside of our gaze, hidden in her innermost interior self. It is those certain slow days she must have had battling through her daily tasks against a persistent seasick-like nausea. Or, of bending to her task with a searing shoot of pain up her back, through her knees, the jab of a tiny foot thrusting into her side. It is likely, also, the lingering and persistent awareness that others would not and likely could not “get it.” Judging her harshly within the narrow reality of their own limited imaginations, while she is left to wander in the deep and powerful sea of her own expanded one, alone. A mysterious sea so vast and unfathomable that even as she engaged it with her whole mind, body, and soul she could not yet ascertain it even years later at her Son’s early death. Her own fiancée, who faithfully chose to trust and believe, still could not ever really know or enter into the intimacy of her experience. And there is weight, both physical and metaphysical, in this kind of bearing.  

Dr. James Houston, founder and professor of Regent College in Vancouver, gave a lecture years ago titled “Redeeming our Tears” and in it he speaks about “the loneliness of uniqueness” as that particular ache we all experience from time to time from simply being the only “me” that there is. His wisdom comes in naming this pocket of uneasiness we all carry with us and cautioning not to make more of it or less of it than we ought. Rather, to simply bear it within ourselves and allow that particular loneliness to become the space in which we seek to commune with God, inviting him to meet us in that loneliness and to bear fruit from it. It is the space where, as N.T. Wright explores in his book The Crown and the Fire, “We too are called to be Theotokoi, God-bearers . . . called to be those through whom God’s redeeming love will still come to birth in the world.”

In the creative life this sense of otherness, of feeling set apart in some way, is part of bearing whatever gift God has seen fit to bestow on us, just as Mary faithfully bore hers. It is the time in which we allow the Word, once received, to take root and grow in us. Perhaps even to burden us for a time, trusting that it is taking on a life of its own. It is the quiet years spent gathering phrases for a book not yet written, or the littering a studio floor with sketches of strangers’ faces not yet painted. Perhaps it is nothing more than the years of simple habits accumulated to enable a well ordered home or mind. It is the unseen work, the gestational work, that is uniquely burdensome to the bearer and yet essential for life to take root, to grow up. 

And finally, Mary teaches us about delivering the Word into the world. Not just as a standalone act, but as an ongoing one that marks the beginning of a life given over to the other that began as little more than a whiff of inspiration, a whim. There is much debate about whether or not Mary actually experienced labor pains, with even the most esteemed early Church fathers, and the Catholic Church still, deeming that Christ’s birth was mystical and involved no pain or mess just as the Immaculate conception did not require intercourse. Which is to say, I am taking liberties here.   

But they are the liberties of one well-acquainted with birth, at least. I have delivered four children myself, and had the distinct privilege of attending my best friend at the birth of three of my four godchildren (missing one due to a miscalculated travel itinerary and an over-eager baby!). At each one, the moment in which the baby emerged was a holy one, ushering in a palpable transcendence that still makes me tear up when I imagine myself back in those otherwise sterile rooms, a transcendence at once so light and so heavy that even the staff and doctors were hushed by it. 

As a result, I simply have a hard time imagining the power of that moment of birth, the literal emergence of new life, apart from the distinctive cry, or roar, of release that comes with it. I have no imagination apart from that holy sound of a mother’s unhinged joy, itself emerging glorious from hours of trembling and ache. In a very literal sense it is the moment in which, for both mother and baby, darkness emerges into light. 

Whether the same was true of Mary we can’t ever really know, but in my mind I see Mary’s birth as being mediated in its own way by the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding her through its pains as a seasoned navigator, providing the same kind of reassurance and calm that allowed my youngest goddaughter to be born into almost complete silence in a dimly lit hospital room late on a winter’s evening last year. Her mother’s calm seemed to quiet the entire hall. Even an otherwise busy obstetrician sat for minutes on end in silence at the foot of her bed as she breathed rhythmically through the final stage of pushing in quiet meditation, bearing down in silence until her last, final, victorious cry ushered in a tinier cry, mother and daughter united in the very moment they are first divided. 

In his essay from several years ago titled Mortify Our Wolves, Christian Wiman reflects on some of the people and pieces of art that have been powerful in helping him understand his faith more fully, particularly noting the work of contemporary sculptor and printmaker Lee Bontecou, the work of his wife, and the simple small-town life of his grandmother in West Texas. And he makes an interesting observation writing, “So much [of] Western theology has been constructed on a fundamental disfigurement of the mind and reality. In neglecting the voices of women, who are more attuned to the immanent nature of divinity, who feel that eruption in their very bodies, theology has silenced a powerful — perhaps the most powerful — side of God.”

It is this “eruption in their very bodies,” whether pain-free or pain-full, that Mary, in her femininity, has to teach us at Christmas. Allowing the Word not just to settle in and gestate for a time, but then also to burst forth, to be given over and released into the world and not kept for oneself. Which is too the call of our creativity. It is the discipline of recognizing that while our insights and ideas and perspectives are a gift to ourselves first, they are not ever intended to be a gift to ourselves alone, to fester in insularity or in the perfection we seek to attain within the guarded inner-sanctum of our pride. Father A.G. Sertillanges, a French Dominican priest who wrote The Intellectual Life, itself a lovely treatise on stewarding one’s gifts, writes that, “Christ reigns by unfolding himself in men.” It is a simple but powerful statement that requires us to examine if we are willing to unfold ourselves, to give away and yield that which is bound up inside us. 

Because, of course, as Mary also knows, that initial act of unfolding, and erupting, and bearing forth the gift that is within us, risky and pronounced as it is, is also only the beginning of a much longer stewardship over which we have little, if any, control. It can be terrifying to give birth, but there is a different kind of awe and fear in the days and years after, as you watch she who has been birthed change and evolve into a person wholly separate and other, with a will and power all her own.  

In her book The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris concludes with a poem she wrote on Ascension Day the year her sister went into labor with her second child that concludes with the lines, “Now the new mother, that leaky vessel / begins to nurse her child / beginning the long good-bye.” And, I suspect, it is this long good-bye that is the mark of true faithfulness, a full heeding of the Word from inspiration to completion. It is the willingness to birth into the world something that may not survive you. Indeed, which may nearly kill you if and when it dies. It is the image of Mary not at Christmas, but at Easter, swaddling her Son in cloth once again, but this time He is full grown. It is la Pietá.  

And this, too, is bound up in Christmas, bound up in what it means to risk bringing truth or beauty or goodness into the world. We must be willing to yield fully to it, which is, of course, an impossible demand for us in our frailty and fear. And that is precisely why God is gentle to teach us by Mary’s example at Christmas, how to grow in our capacity to yield the Word in us. First, by receiving the Word into ourselves, then by allowing it to grow and take form inside us over time, and only then, by our labor, to release it, in its smallest form, into the word with care and responsibility, surrendering to whatever it might require. 

A Prayer from Pope Francis for the Advent Season: 

Mary, woman of listening, open our ears; grant us to know how to listen to the word of your Son Jesus among the thousands of words of this world; grant that we may listen to the reality in which we live, to every person we encounter, especially those who are poor, in need, in hardship.

Mary, woman of decision, illuminate our mind and our heart, so that we may obey, unhesitating, the word of your Son Jesus; give us the courage to decide, not to let ourselves be dragged along, letting others direct our life.

Mary, woman of action, obtain that our hands and feet move “with haste” toward others, to bring them the charity and love of your Son Jesus, to bring the light of the Gospel to the world, as you did. Amen.

Kate Harris is a writer, speaker, and consultant in Washington, D. C. She is also wife to a good man and mother of their four young children.

1 Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve. The word Advent means "coming" or "arrival." The focus of the season is to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and to anticipate the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent.

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