This post by Caitlin Desjardins was originally published on December 24, 2014.
“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son; she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, because there was no room for them at the inn.” Luke 2:7, The Inclusive Bible Translation
I’m going to make a confession. I find a certain secret enjoyment in reading Mommy Blogs. You know the type I’m talking about: early-30’s conservative Christian moms writing about the best car seats or Three Tips for Tackling Toddler Toy Trouble, with a thousand maternity pictures and blatant overuse of the word “blessing.” I don’t admit this often. I’m more of the cynic type; of the life-and-motherhood are inextricably messy and imperfect and chaotic philosophy. While some blogs are more honest about the true state of living rooms post-photo shoot, there’s a certain sunny happiness and complete adoration of family life that I rather ought to find off-putting. My experience even just with my godkids seems marked more by poop and fevers than perfect Pinterest birthday parties.
Here’s the real confession: while I understand all of these things about motherhood, and I acknowledge wholly that perfection in the blogosphere & the real world is completely unattainable, I read these blogs because as I begin to make plans for my own first child, a part of me does still care about the perfect car seat, avoiding toddler-inappropriate cookie recipes, and I want my future child’s nursery to be totally rockin’.
Then I read about Mary.
Because my partner and I plan on adopting, I haven’t given tons of thought to the whole natural birth thing, but I have a lot of friends who have. Being 26 with friends well into their thirties, most of whom verge on the Menno-Hippie type, the best doulas in town and how to create a peaceful birth experience are remarkably popular party conversations. Yet, despite Biblical precedent and years of practice in Christmas pageants, no one has yet suggested birth in a stable. Candlelight is a popular ambiance these days, not the scent of dung.
I wonder what plans Mary had. Was there an expected and accepted way and place to give birth in her time? Had she made plans that were dashed by this census travel? Or were plans futile anyhow, her family having rejected her, Bethlehem as good a place as any?
Did Mary research infant donkey-seats? Choose a perfect crib? Sew and knit away in anticipation, only to find she couldn’t bring any of it along?
I understand Mary & my cultural worlds are entirely removed from each other. Yet if any mother ever had reason to be excited and anxious to birth and meet and mother her child, it was Mary. She knew something, after all, of this child being holy, special, destined, even a king. While I doubt she had planned a royal purple nursery with a crown mobile, I do not doubt that she had hopes and dreams. I also rather doubt Bethlehem, stables, or feeding troughs were a part of her birth plan.
And here is where, while I will continue to enjoy my Mommy Blogs, I find Mary’s experience, however culturally removed, to resonate with me far more deeply. Because babies are rarely well-timed, and plans nearly always change or utterly crumble, and nurseries don’t look like we had hoped, and our children are not who we imagined (however much we love them). I suspect that these sentiments stand true for life, as well, not just babies. When does anything really go as planned? When do we actually end up where we expect? To me, all this serves as a particular irony at Christmastime, when the grand story of life unexpected and chaotic becomes the centerpiece and reason for elaborate efforts of holiday perfection and gloss.
The great, great news here perhaps lies in exactly what we try to avoid with early wrapping and shopping: that God works wonders in the chaos, in the disappointment, in the manger. I have often reflected over the years at the wonder of God working through a child, a baby, and an unwed teenage mom. This year, though, looking again at this birth narrative, my wonder extends further. God was present in, and made known in, probably one of the most stressful and disappointing birth experiences in history. It had to be hard for Mary, even when she knew the end result would be beautiful and astounding. And it makes me think about the big-picture birth experiences of my own life: the naissance of my partnership, my work in ministry, my getting-where-I-am-now, and realize that all of it was so much messier than I wanted it to be, and such an avenue for grace and trust, as well. It makes me think of the Mennonite Church right now, fumbling messily towards what I do believe will be the eventual joyful inclusion of LGBT people: perhaps this mess, these unexpected turns, are our Bethlehem, stable, and manger. Like Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper may have turned us away, but by no means is that the end of the story.
It is Christmas Eve, a night of candlelight services & restless children. It is a night we remember Mary, a baby, and God’s improbable graces. Let us, this year, acknowledge the dung with the glitter, the chaos with the wrapping, and take this day as a sign of mercy amidst, through, and despite all that seems imperfect and messy in our lives. Instead of using our holidays to step away from the disappointments in our lives, let us enter them richly, and discover God dwelling there. “For we know that God works everything together for the good of those who love God…” Mangers, stables, dung, & all.