By Bonnie Nichols Scott
It was my first year of divinity school, and as winter came, twinkling lights were strung around campus, church bells rang, and I found myself thinking constantly of Mary. I was a relatively recent convert to Christianity, and each liturgical season felt completely new. Unlike many Episcopalians I knew, for me the rhythms of tradition — lighting candles on the Advent wreath, the familiar gospel readings, the nativity scenes lovingly assembled in church yards — all felt miraculously newfangled. The inflatable yard angels and poor depictions of baby Jesus, which had once provoked a vague sense of delight at the soon-approaching presents and festivities, were now filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit. All was made new, imbued with a meaning I was only beginning to grasp.
That Advent, I wrote about the feeling of being “in expectancy.” I described this as a spiritual pregnancy in which something unknown was growing within me. As with a physical birth, I had a sense that in some crucial way, there would be an eventual breaking open — a submission to the tenderness and pain of some yet unknown but deeply necessary vulnerability. Over the next few years, a worldwide pandemic ensued, and amid its previously unimaginable difficulties, I opened myself to a sense of calling to the priesthood.
This Advent, a new visitor has come to stay: a baby girl, to be born in April. As I read from Luke this year — “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (1:41-42) — I experienced my child’s kicks and “leaps,” a sensation I continue to find indescribable. This season of waiting has taken on entirely new meaning as I prepare both my home and my heart for the arrival of an entirely new person into the world.
How can someone possibly prepare to be a mother? The kicks and turns I feel within me are but small hints — whispers, really — of who this new child might be. As my husband and I talk through possible names for our little girl, it can begin to feel absurd. How can I name a child I have yet to meet? This small life that grows within me will soon be a full person with emotions, habits, thoughts, and personality, now completely obscured but soon to become astonishingly, terrifyingly concrete. While we will play no small part in who she becomes, so much of her remains hidden, soon to be revealed.
In the gospel reading for December 18, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and tells him, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21). While very little of what is to come is disclosed, Joseph and Mary are given Jesus’ name and told that he will offer the world salvation.
The angel’s message in Matthew mirrors Gabriel’s to Mary in Luke: “Do not be afraid” (1:30). This time around, I find the angel’s words especially profound. In a world that, despite our best efforts, constantly reminds us of the limitations of our control, there are still moments of decision or revelation on which our lives turn that can provoke particular and profound fear. While I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember, I have not been spared this fear. I fear giving birth, my deficiency in the role of mother, the unknowable difficulties that having a child may bring, poverty, and the responsibility of keeping my child safe and alive. I fear loving someone else more deeply than I can, even now, possibly understand.
Mary has much to fear. She is a yet-unwed woman who, once her pregnancy is discovered, faces great difficulty and even, possibly, death by stoning. And yet she replies to Gabriel not with protests or questions, but calls herself the Lord’s servant and says, “let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She does not plea for a different fate but trusts that this strange and difficult gift is a blessing beyond comprehension. As a pregnant mother, I am moved by Mary’s faith and courage.
In the Magnificat, she says,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49)
For Mary, to be blessed by the Lord does not mean she is shielded from worldly pains or difficulty. How must Mary have suffered as she lay in straw on the floor of a stable, deprived of the privacy and comfort of a room, provided with no more comfort in her excruciating birth pangs than a calving cow. Nor does Jesus’ divinity deprive her of the ultimate pain any mother can face — that of losing a child. And yet Mary’s soul glorifies God, and her spirit rejoices. Through the sufferings of this life, she does not lose faith in God; she knows herself to be blessed.
I look to Mary’s holiness and courage as a model as I embark on the strange and beautiful journey of becoming a mother. I pray that, with her as my guide, I can fully embrace the miraculous gift of holding within me and bringing forth new life. It is a blessing I could not possibly ever deserve, and one that by God’s grace I have been given.