Good news for the burnt out

I don’t think too much about Mary. She’s not revered in Protestant circles to the extent that she is in Catholicism. But still, at Christmas, it’s hard to avoid her image, pregnant and riding a donkey, inhumanly serene. Haloed in glory and perfectly put together after giving birth in a stable. Her hands and face always soft. Always gentle. The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. And mother Mary, well, she was immaculate too. Always.

I gave birth two months ago. I put my baby in a wrap and go on daily walks with my toddler, who has been desperate for attention and stimulation outside of the home for months, even before the baby arrived. I catch my reflection in a window we pass by. I haven’t worn makeup in ages. I tie my hair up in a nest on my head, lest it get spit up in it. I feel like half a human. (Having my abdomen cut open for the second time in four years does that.) And here I am, adorned in long skirt, carrying a baby tied to my chest, wrapped in a poncho to keep us both warm, dark circles under my eyes, struggling to keep up with my toddler, and I think, “I bet Mary looked like this when she was heading home.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Bible doesn’t actually say that Mary gave birth in a stable, just that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn (or guest room, depending on your interpretation of the Greek). In fact, in the ancient near east, animals weren’t kept in stables as we think of them. It’s likely that the Holy Family were actually in a house belonging to a distant relative, staying on the bottom level where animals were housed, which wasn’t terribly uncommon at the time. It might shatter our cozy Christmas image, but I don’t think it changes the underlying point of the story; Christ was born in humility, in a place that wasn’t his home. And something about giving birth in the home of strangers actually brings Mary closer to home to me.

There’s little to no dignity in giving birth, no matter how you go about it. It’s stressful having doctors and nurses you’ve never met attending the process, but to be surrounded by people you don’t know, in a place far from home, unsure of the future… it sounds miserable. Mary was probably only 14 or 15. Her pregnancy was unplanned. Her husband probably had lots of questions and confusion about the conception of this baby she was carrying. She probably did, too. She had no midwife walking her through the process. Heck, even having modern scientific advances, the strange and miraculous way our bodies grow and nourish life, this uniquely feminine act of literal life-giving is still deeply mysterious and sometimes quite terrifying. Did she have morning sickness? Braxton-Hicks contractions? Did she labor for hours or even days? Did anyone in the house help her deliver? Did Joseph hold her hand? Did the infant Jesus have a good latch? Did her milk come in on time? Did she tear? Did she suffer from postpartum depression? Did she cry in the wee hours of the morning, overwhelmed by hormones and the feeling that she was truly the only person in the world going through what she was?

The only thing we know about Mary’s mindset is the Magnificat, in which she thanks and praises God for His great redemptive story and her own role in it. But even accepting God’s calling doesn’t mean one doesn’t have bad, doubtful, depressed days. It certainly hasn’t for me. I approach this holiday season after much of a year spent in quarantine––a year full of grief and disappointments on every level, ranging from family death to breakdowns to job loss to racial injustice to losing our community, where in the midst of that, the relentlessness of parenting never stopped––the potty training, late night wake ups, morning sickness, exhaustion, tantrums, meltdowns, thrown toys, refused dinners, back talk, Braxton-hicks contractions, dirty clothes, messy hands, and anxiety over screen time––were endless. There were no weekends, no vacations, no breaks. My first son was unplanned. I have never regretted his life, but I have wondered how different life would be if I’d had more of a choice in the timing. Did Mary ever feel that way? Did Mary ever wish this season of her life was different? Did she ever get to the end of the day finding that she’d hit rock bottom in her burn-out and the only thing she had to look forward to was another day of grasping the rope she was clinging to, and hoping that the burn-out had an end.

I bet she did.

As a good Protestant, I don’t think Mary was anything other than a human, a mother, much like me, doing the impossible and never-ending work; that sacred task, of parenting a child. A child more incredible than most, yes. But even though Jesus was fully God, he must have been fully human too, with all of the bodily fluids and frustration and late nights that entails. And I think in those moments that maybe this life of mine, this season, this burn-out, isn’t so far from the sacred after all. That perhaps nine months of quarantine with a toddler, a difficult pregnancy, and now a new infant brings me closer to the heart of Christ than any candlelit Christmas service and softly cooing choral arrangement of “O Holy Night”. That Christ didn’t come into the world from a warm temple or cushy palace for a reason.

This is the Good News. Christ is here with us, not just in the sense of being human, but in the sense of being right in the middle of the mess––in the shit with us, as Scott Erickson puts it––He is here, even as I make never-ending peanut butter sandwiches and change never-ending diapers and sit up during the endless, endless nights. This is the Good News.

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