Even though I hated nursing with the fiery heat of a thousand suns and thought the colic that often lasted into the middle of the night might kill me, having a newborn was one of the most magically romantic times of my life. Hannah Marie was born in the fall of 1998 on October 16. She is named after my grandmothers, Hannah Hilder Evodia Olsen Kelley and Ethel Marie Sjoberg Anderson, who were the best of friends.
My Grandma Kelley died way too young. Ovarian cancer. One day, years later, my Grandma Anderson and I sat on a park bench and she turned to me and said, “I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years but the person I miss most is your Grandma.” We both sat and cried for a few moments in the quiet then continued on our walk.
These were amazing women. They didn’t accomplish anything spectacular by today’s standards. But they loved me. They read to me and sang me songs. They bravely lived their lives. To me, they were mythic paragons of love and intelligence and warmth, and so I wanted my daughter to carry them with her. To be marked by their existence.
I thought about them a lot after Hannah was born. So much nostalgia and longing in those first months of her life. I felt more connected to them somehow.
Eight days before Hannah was born Shawn Colvin’s album Holiday Songs and Lullabies came out. The album became the soundtrack to my first three months of motherhood and I’ve revisited it every Christmas for the last 23 years.
It is an album of lullabies. It’s a Christmas album. And it’s a poignant album about the longing heart of love.
When I describe that time in my life as “romantic” I mean it in the classic literary sense. A celebration of the pastoral and the common man, a focus on individual experience and spirituality, an idealized view of women, and an embrace of isolation and melancholy. I was more present to my life than I had ever been before. It had taken loving a squirming baby in my lap to find my inner Thoreau. Maybe also because the love I felt as a new mother was melancholic. It felt overwhelming in ways that contained both tranquility and terror.
I had been captured by this creature and my life would never be the same.
I’m a good enough mother. Not great. I’ve made lots of mistakes. Too many to count. But I do know, especially when I sit and re-listen to the lullabies, that those first few months I reveled in love, as terrifying as it was. Maybe it was the romantic sensibility or maybe the hormones, but I would hold Hannah in my arms and cry quietly as I listened to Shawn Colvin’s lullabies.
Speaking of newborns…
I was reading the annunciation scene in Luke the other day that leads to Mary’s Magnificat. I realized as I read this text that for as much as I think I don’t read the Bible literally, when it comes to the birth story of Jesus I’m holding on to some serious literalism. But as I sat with the story…
Here’s Mary, a virgin. Here’s Elizabeth (mother to John the Baptist), 88 years old. One too young and one too old. At this time, women’s worth was mainly found in their ability to bear children. Outside of this role, women were not particularly of value to society. They were overlooked. And yet here are Mary and Elizabeth, both unable to bear children, called to give birth, to co-create with God new life, new possibilities, new realities - new Love. Why did God choose them?
Mary’s not a virgin in the story for purity’s sake or to make her a social outcast or to make her a super hero of sacrifice and bravery. Maybe God chooses Mary and Elizabeth because they simply can’t. And you know what, God can’t either, not alone. The miracle of the story is not a virgin birth or a ridiculously geriatric pregnancy, it’s the story of God’s willingness (even need) to collaborate. The fuller, mythic picture is perhaps more compelling than the literal narrative. We are invited to the dance of creation. A willingness to say yes is all it takes. A letting go. Love is always inviting us to do the impossible.
And yet this particular story of motherhood gives us a radical concept of both God and the divine feminine. The “scandal of the particular” is the only way we can get to this mythic invitation.
That Christ’s incarnation occurred improbably, ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place, is referred to—with great sincerity even among believers—as “the scandal of particularity.” Well, the “scandal of particularity” is the only world that I, in particular, know. What use has eternity for light? We’re all up to our necks in this particular scandal. —Annie Dillard
The story of God’s incarnation speaks to the humility of God and the intrinsic value of us human creatures, even those of us creatures most likely to be over looked.
“It is nearly impossible to believe: God shrinking down to the size of a zygote, implanted in the soft lining of a woman’s womb. God growing fingers and toes. God kicking and hiccuping in utero. God inching down the birth canal and entering this world covered in blood, perhaps into the steady, waiting arms of a midwife. God crying out in hunger. God reaching for his mother’s breasts. God totally relaxed, eyes closed, his chubby little arms raised over his head in a posture of complete trust. God resting in his mother’s lap.
“On the days and nights when I believe this story that we call Christianity, I cannot entirely make sense of the storyline: God trusted God’s very self, totally and completely and in full bodily form, to the care of a woman. God needed women for survival. Before Jesus fed us with the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, Jesus himself needed to be fed, by a woman. He needed a woman to say: ‘This is my body, given for you.”
- Rachel Held Evans, Wholehearted
This is not a story only of motherhood but of loving things into being. In the Magnificat we hear how Mary is going to love the messiah into being. Mary sees God as the liberator, the loyal agent of change. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” The power of compassion that can feed the hungry and lift up the humble. That’s the image of God that we learn when we say yes to the impossible. When we know that we can’t and yet we do anyway in quiet, humble confidence learning along the way.
Each time we say yes, whether it’s to have a child or to enter into a relationship or to take on an extra job or to quit a habit or anything that sacrifices the self we know for the self we meet in the light of Love, we sing the Magnificat. We sing “the first advent hymn” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it in his final sermon.
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Almighty’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
It’s a radical act to say yes to new life, to a new idea or a new way of being. May we all be willing to sing with a longing heart and answer the invitation to the impossible not because we’re extraordinary, but because when Love comes, ordinary is enough.
Check out previous Advent posts.
Thank you for this reflection. I loved hearing about your grandmothers and how you (and Hannah) carry them forward. In Judaism when a kid is named after an ancestor there is a strong tradition of cultivating in the kid the awareness that they are carrying on the positive legacy of their namesake. It's more than just honoring the ancestor, but a torch one carries so that the ancestor lives on in blessed memory. I've always loved this. Your description of those precious early days of parenthood also resonated with me. Henry was born early and spent the first 8 days in the hospital. They turned out to be such precious time with nothing to do but sit with him and love him...everything reduced to just loving and being present. How many times do we get that in our lives? When those we care for are born and die. That seems to be mostly it.