Whenever I happen to find myself pregnant during the Christmas season, it seems like the virgin Mary is on my mind more often than usual.
Granted, this has only been the case for two Decembers in my life so far—2014, and the present. But I remember the same thing happening last time. I felt like I could identify with this character in the historical account more than I’d ever been able to before.
And it’s a pleasant way to spend the season. As I go about my day, listening to Christmas music, it’s a special treat to celebrate a story that has a pregnancy and birth right at the center of it. Mary’s words seem more sweet, more gentle, more full of meaning: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38a).
Let it be to me according to your word. This is the vulnerability of every willing pregnant woman. Let it be to me—the nausea, the weakness, the exhaustion, the strange rearrangement of joints and organs, the bizarre miracle of flesh and bone being knitted together in a sack that I’m carrying around in front of my spine. Let it be to me—the waiting, the period of submission to frailty. Let it be to me—the pain, the labor, the risk, the hope, the small life being pulled up and into my arms. Let it be to me—the giving of my body to feed, the new period of vulnerability when nothing is more unbearable than the thought of this child being harmed.
I think of the body fluids and fatigue inherent in the nativity, the same way that there are body fluids and fatigue inherent in the whole of Christ’s story. He took on flesh. Flesh bleeds and gets hungry and has bowel movements and has to clip its toenails.
Mary—sainted by the Roman Catholic church and immortalized in stained glass and oil paint for 2000 years—was also flesh and blood. Her “let it be to me according to your word” turned out to be a commitment that felt and tasted like motherhood.
That’s why pregnancy seems like such a good medium through which to experience the Christmas story afresh. If it’s usually hard to connect with Mary—being a protestant and all—right now it feels almost hard not to connect with her.
When I was about five or so, I played Mary in my church’s nativity play. I still remember the blue cotton costume my mother made for me. It had a head covering to go with it, also blue. And I remember only one of my lines: “So tired, so tired, so very tired,” which led on, I think, into a soliloquy on the shortage of hotel vacancies in the Bethlehem area. I remember practicing these lines with my mother, and then I remember the prompter, who was huddled at the foot of the stage during the performance. With bright lights on me, I remember her crouched position, and her hissing of those lines: “So tired, so tired, so very tired!”
And I didn’t understand why that was the main thing Mary had to say. In the Bible story, Mary said something about being a virgin, and then said ‘yes’ to the angel, and then had a poem later on, but she didn’t talk about being tired. Why had the writers of this play decided to get her talking about being tired? It seemed out of left field.
Right now, as I anticipate even taking a three hour trip (Hyundai, not donkey) I understand it. Rolling over in bed eight times a night, I understand it. The play writers were doing something called ‘extrapolating’. Mary was big pregnant, and she had to get from one town to another back when traveling was incredibly uncomfortable.
That poor girl was tired.
But she found herself in the middle of a story, one that she would later find out was a sort of glorious hinge, around which the rest of the history of the universe rotates. This was her response:
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 2:46-55).
The role of obedience- for Mary, for myself, for any woman or man- is one that turns a person into a witness and a participant in a glorious dance. They find themselves with the unutterable blessing of seeing God’s glory through his acts, from up close. Rather than finding that they are at the center of a story that they themselves are telling, they find that they are able to follow the plot points of a story that God has been telling for all of time.
The only special thing about Mary and her contemporaries is that she stepped onto the stage just at the point of the story’s climax. Seeing this, and declaring that “he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name,” is the part of Mary’s role that any of us can share.
He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.