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Christmas With Our Mother

Last Christmas I was 10 days postpartum with my first child. Most of my memories of that time are lost in a sleep-deprived blur, but a few things stand out. I remember going to the pediatrician for our three-day-old checkup and being genuinely startled when the nurse wished me and my husband a Merry Christmas. I was so consumed with trying to learn how to keep a tiny baby alive while also recovering from childbirth that I had completely forgotten Christmas was a week away. I remember that, for the first time in my life, I didn’t go to the Nativity Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. We had planned to go to the Christmas Day service, but the baby had a rough night, and on Christmas morning the prospect of getting dressed and out the door for an 8 a.m. service was more than I could bear. I remember recognizing — dimly — that for the first time I wasn’t going to church for Christmas and I was too tired to care or to feel guilty about it.

Later that Christmas Day I managed to escape the visitors who had descended on our house, fueled by the dual excitement of Christmas and the new baby, by taking the baby into our bedroom to nurse. Figuring out breastfeeding had been much harder and much more exhausting than I had thought it would be when I was pregnant. Even after 10 days — and a visit to a board-certified lactation consultant — I still wasn’t sure what I was doing.

I had assumed that I would be sleep-deprived, but in my naivete I also assumed everything would just sort of come to me. I was a smart, competent, and well-educated person, after all. But I was learning the hard way that I had underestimated the bone-deep exhaustion that comes with recovering form childbirth. I had hormone withdrawals that left me always on the edge of tears and made me feel like I was losing my mind, and I could not have predicted how draining it was to feed a baby with my body, all on three to four non-consecutive hours of sleep a night.

As I sat in my armchair that Christmas afternoon, holding my tiny baby in the quiet, a thought flashed fully formed through my exhausted mind: Mary was here too. For the first time in 10 days, I didn’t feel alone in my struggle. My eyes filled with tears as I thought about Mary holding her baby, just like I was. She must have woken up in the middle of the night, not just when he cried, but also when he gurgled or grunted. I thought of her grimacing through the pain and fear as she tried to figure out nursing. Did she worry if Jesus was getting enough to eat and gaining weight quickly enough? Was she also unsure if she was doing it right, or if she was even capable of being a mother? Did her body hurt as much as mine?

Of course she experienced all of that. The thing you realize when you see birth and postpartum up close is that — for all of our technology, science, and modern medicine — the basics haven’t really changed. Human infancy is still just as helpless and fragile as it was then. It wasn’t easy, but it was simple. All my baby needed was to be held and fed, kept warm and safe. A line from a beloved Christmas carol came to me: “Enough for him whom cherubim worship night and day: a breast full of milk, and a manger full of hay.”

I realized then that my body had been made for this moment and for this purpose. I knew that no matter how hard and painful it was, even in the moments when I felt like I was wasting away, I had been given an immense privilege. I had been called to give up my strength in exchange for the strength of this tiny girl. How many times had I, as a priest, stood at the altar and said “Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you.” Would I ever be able to say those words in the same way? That first meal, a gift from a mother to her son on a cold Christmas morning in Bethlehem, gestures toward the gift Christ gives his disciples in the upper room. This is my body.

As I saw my story unfold into Mary’s, I felt as though I was seeing the mystery of the Incarnation in a new light. The Church venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary not only for what she did as the woman who gave birth to Jesus, but as the Mother of God. Her body is not just the vessel that carries Jesus and nurtures him as an infant, but the only means of Incarnation. Jesus Christ is the eternal Logos of God, but his human nature and body come into the world the way all of us did: as a donation from the body of his mother. To celebrate Christmas with Mary is to affirm unequivocally that the Word became flesh, with all its mess and blood and pain. What a privilege to enter this world the way our Lord did. What a joy for me to hold another human creature in my arms; a person so loved by God that he was willing to share a nature, flesh, and blood with her.

As I looked at the baby, my mind drifted from Jesus’ earthly mother to his heavenly Father. To have a little creature — so dependent, finite, and contingent — made me see not just myself, but the whole human race in light of God’s love for us. As hard as being a new mother was, I knew that what I wanted more than anything was for my daughter to thrive, to grow, and to flourish. I was ready to fight any power that would threaten her. When I looked at her, I saw not just her 10-day-old self, but her potential: the dreams and friendships and encounters she would have with the world. I mourned, preemptively, her failings and shortcomings and the fact that she was going to see how cruel and hard the world is; the fact that she would be hurt, and that she was going to hurt others. Even on her 10th  day, I was already sad that she was going to grow up, and wouldn’t need me. But a larger and stronger part was overjoyed with the prospect of her growing, flourishing, and becoming the person she was made to be.

Children give us a small but real encounter with the Father’s love for all his children, his desire to see us not just exist, but to flourish — to grow into the people he has called us to be. His joy in our triumphs, and his sorrow in our failings. When I think about these things, about what lengths his love was willing to go — about the hand that once held Mary’s nailed to the cross, not just to save us from death, but so that we may live in him forever, I can do nothing more than utter a Christmas prayer: a whispered “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” and “Help me” and “I love you,” all in the same breath.


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