The Resurrection of Jesus
Fruit of the Mystery: Poverty of Spirit
God in the Muck
My belly tightens as the next wave of pain washes over me. I reach for my husband, for a steady grip of love to keep me grounded. He’s not where I expect, and in his absence, I’m gripped by the fear that this will be the wave that sweeps me away. I call out his name.
He returns just as the contraction subsides. “I’m here,” he breathes, eyes soft with concern. As his breath reaches my face, revulsion rolls through me.
I’m not certain but I may have screamed it. “That is disgusting,” I growl, spitting the last word out through gritted teeth. Now I know where he has been. His brief absence was bad enough; in my feral condition, I am livid at the addition of nausea to the pain I endure. He rushes away apologetically to brush his teeth, and I am immediately desperate for his strong, steady touch — my only source of comfort in this fast and furious labor.
Later, we will laugh about my moment of maternal ferocity in response to his perceived betrayal. It is the single blip in our son’s quick and joyful birth story. When the throes of labor subside, all thoughts of tuna disappear. I’m left exhausted but joyful, cradling a newborn at my breast. The nurses haven’t washed him yet, and his skin is waxy in places. I flinch as they stich me up. Still, nothing can detract from the sacredness of this moment.
Months later, it is Advent. My new baby curls into my arms. I watch his tiny chest rise and fall as shadows from flickering Christmas tree lights dance across his face. It’s a moment of peace in the bustle of the season, and I relish the moment to catch my breath. A glint of gold catches my eye, the sheen of an heirloom ornament brilliant among evergreen branches. Pictured is a new mother. Like me, she cradles an infant on her chest, husband at her side. The rest of this post-birth scene is very different from the antiseptic hospital in which we received my son. There are no bright lights or cold floors. There is no attentive team of medical professionals looking after them.
Mary delivered by moonlight in the dust of the earth, the brays and bleats of disinterested livestock her soundtrack. It’s the thought of the animals that jolts me out of my pious reverie. Specifically, it is the thought of the smell of those animals. Aside from our brief brush with tuna, my delivery room was filled with the scents of lavender and clary sage. My savior was born into the reek of manure.
How often have I idealized this scene? In all my moments meditating on this mystery, not once have I paused to picture what it was really like. I’ve never imagined Mary aching from postpartum cramps or the rush of love she might have felt as little lips found her breast for the first time. I pictured a Hallmark card — a static scene in which Mary and Joseph graciously hosted strange middle-of-the-night visitors. In my mind, I saw a glow surrounding their faces, not hair damp with the sweat of labor. Mary received her son into poverty — a dark and dusty hovel. The night was more likely filled with newborn cries than angel choirs.
Some of the Church Fathers posited that Mary was spared from the pangs of childbirth, but somehow, I doubt it. Watching your son hang on the cross has to be as painful as hanging there yourself; if God didn’t spare Mary or his son from these sufferings, then I tend to think she joined us in the trials of ushering new life into the world. I remember my revulsion at the smell of tuna and imagine Mary laboring with no escape from the stench of animals. My love for her deepens with the knowledge that we are united in this primal aspect of our identity as mothers.
My awe of Mary is not because she is separate from me, somehow distant in her holiness. It is because she is like me. Jesus might be “like us in all things but sin,” but he’s never breastfed before. Our Mother, on the other hand, sits with us as only a mother can. Late nights spent worrying over a feverish infant, the heart-stopping panic of losing sight of your child in a crowd, the catch of breath and the joy that follows as tiny fingers loosen their grip and little legs toddle forward on their own for the first time — these are the moments and treasures that we share with a very real Mother who has endured what we endure.
Picturing the mud and the muck of the nativity impresses upon me that holiness is not limited to the lofty things. Of course, prayer sustains us, but maybe prayer isn’t what I imagine. Holiness is here, too, and maybe even more real in the dust of the earth. God chooses to greet us face to face in the darkness and in the muck. Our most sacred witness of motherhood begins amid the stench of animals. Our Incarnate God’s first worship on earth is made by the poorest of pilgrims. Our lives are not sanctified by the beauty of the Churches we enter or the utterance of many prayers that rise like incense there. We are made holy by the offering of our lives to Christ, as Mary offered a “yes” that led her to receiving Jesus in blood and dirt. There was nothing grand about Jesus’ entry into our world, nothing to marvel at except the profound dignity of a mother receiving her child with love.
The nativity shows us that the holiness of motherhood cannot be negated by its messes. If loving our children is messy, we can take solace in the fact that it was messy for the Mother of God as well. God dwells in our domestic churches. We can find him in the spit-up as much as in the holy water. The nativity shows us that the mission of motherhood is not to create a Pinterest-perfect childhood. Rather, it is to greet and honor Christ in our lives daily by receiving each child God has given us with the love of our Mother — dust and all.
About Samantha: Samantha Stephenson is a Catholic mom of 3, writer, and host of Brave New Us, a podcast exploring bioethics in the light of faith. She is also the founder of Spoken Women, a place to nourish your creative calling. Connect with her or sign up for her “Mama Prays” newsletter at snstephenson.com.