Since having children, I’ve become a terrible television consumer. “I just can’t watch crap like this anymore,” I say to my husband, who nods in agreement, as I peer through my fingers half-watching the latest casualties on Game of Thrones. Of course, I can — and still do — watch; I just might also be more prone to nightmares and checking tiny pulses throughout the night.
Having children doesn’t change everything, but it sure does change a lot of things: pain tolerance, patience threshold, bedtimes, amount of time required to leave the house, financial outlook, affinity for loungewear — understanding of the incarnation.
In the incarnation, God sends us Jesus — fully God and fully human — bearing both the responsibility of a savior and the mantle of human fragility. It’s a powerful statement on God’s love for God’s people. We need the incarnation for myriad reasons both salvific and illustrative; in our limited capacity to understand the divine, we need to know that our God has been one of us. God has taken on the form of man and experienced oppression, loneliness, love, temptation, torture, and, ultimately, death.
But now when I contemplate that death, my gaze can’t help but dip to the foot of the cross: to examine the face of the woman who birthed him.
After growing up Catholic, switching sides to Southern Baptist as a preteen, and then becoming Lutheran by marriage, my attitude toward Mary, the Mother of God, has ranged from confused devotion to misguided avoidance to distant reverence to, now as a mother, perhaps simply awe — with a side of no, I’m not crying!
Becoming a mother is wholly fearsome — even steeped in the privilege of easily accessible health care, financial stability, and supportive networks. With my first pregnancy, fear was in the unknown. And let’s be clear: I “knew” everything. I read everything. Cut to: leaving my birth plan at home and ending up with an emergency C-section, teeny baby girl who didn’t know how to eat, or, seemingly, sleep — and prayers for the real knowing. How, in my limited capacity, was I to provide for and protect this most precious gift?
I needed someone to sit with me in my broken body, having experienced the joyful trauma of birth, the loneliness of a newfound ignorance, and the weight of responsibility for a person who would forever be more important than myself.
In a way, I needed the incarnation, but I needed it in the form of a woman — specifically, in the form of a mother.
I am not attempting to ascribe some kind of divinity to Mary; I believe she was fully human, full stop. But God could have accomplished the incarnation in whatever way God chose — through manifestation as an already-adult man, through triumphant descent from the heavens as the Jewish people were hoping — but God chose childbirth. God chose making God’s self someone’s child. And while it’s important that the word became flesh and experienced real humanity from infancy — isn’t it also important that for around nine months his flesh was enmeshed with that of his mother?
I love the illustrative way Natalie Wigg-Stevenson describes it in her article on motherhood and baptism in the March 2016 issue of Sojourners magazine: “We existed together as something between one and two creatures, contiguous, continuous, fused in spirit and flesh, sacred numeric mystery.”
This is the way God chose to incarnate God’s self. Oh, how beautiful a miracle — oh, how petrifying a role for a poor, unmarried, teenage girl. What must that fear have looked like?
Around the 7-month mark of my second pregnancy, fear manifested itself in a real desire to just keep being pregnant — even in the throes of a D.C. summer. I feared childbirth again, yes, but more so, I was scared of what happened next. This tiny life was safe and warm within the confines of my womb. There, I could truly give him everything he needed without worry of whether I was providing enough, feeding him enough, loving him enough.
But in giving us incarnation-through-childbirth — in giving us Mary — God offers us mothers a guidepost to find our way through fear, through transition, through new life — and through the grief and sorrow that comes with the world you’re bringing that new life into.
So for me, as a mother, the incarnation becomes tangible thus: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus” and [not listed in Gabriel’s announcement] he’ll be brutally killed in front of you. It becomes tangible when I again picture this mother at the foot of a cross where her son hangs. He is the savior of the world, carrying out God’s perfect plan through his death and resurrection, yes. … But he is her baby.
What is a more crushing experience of humanity than a mother losing her son?
In Mary, we find more than a Proverbs 31-style example of holy living for women. Because it’s not just that God chose Mary to bring forth God’s will and she submitted. Rather, Mary becomes yet another tangible offering of an incarnate God — one God then gives to the church:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother."
Here is your mother. Here is our mother.
God’s incarnation in Jesus saves me. Mary’s role in that incarnation sustains me — in infinite ways — as I experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood.
“For now all generations will call me blessed.” Indeed.