While the angels are singing his prais­es in a blaze of glory

Mary stays behind and starts clean­ing up the place.

~Patty Griffin, Mary 

The year I stud­ied abroad, my friends and I took a long week­end trip to the Vatican very close to Christmas. Various car­di­nals held pub­lic ser­mons through­out the day and occa­sion­al­ly the pope would pop in to bless the long line of reli­gious pil­grims. On the day we attend­ed, the ser­mon was about Genesis 3:16:

To the woman the Lord God said, “I will great­ly mul­ti­ply your pain in child­bear­ing; in pain you shall bring forth children.”

Not exact­ly the hol­i­day inspi­ra­tion I was look­ing for, but you get what you get. The devout Roman Catholics hold that women will always suf­fer through birth as pun­ish­ment for our orig­i­nal sin. 

Mary got a loop­hole. The Immaculate Conception meant that God chose Mary at her birth, graced her as His cho­sen. Later on, that would come to pass as get­ting preg­nant with­out hav­ing sex. Mary alleged­ly says, “I am the maid­ser­vant of the Lord. May it be done to me accord­ing to your word.” 

This ver­sion of Mary is meek, obe­di­ent with­out ask­ing ques­tions. Then she births Jesus in a Palestinian barn with­out any pain or mess. The apoc­ryphal Protoevangelium of James describes Mary’s birth expe­ri­ence as noth­ing but a burst of bright light, as if attend­ed by an angel­ic doula. Jesus was in his mother’s arms, no muss, no fuss. This white­washed ver­sion of giv­ing birth did not coin­cide with the videos I watched in 8th grade gym class or my per­son­al experience. 

The les­son that Cardinal offered me as an 18-year-old was the idea that God wants me to be meek­ly obe­di­ent, a sin­less vir­gin, and a lov­ing moth­er. This unat­tain­able bar left me reli­gious­ly unmoored, left out of the sto­ry of human­i­ty. Here’s what I know now. 

Mary was – and remains – a mir­a­cle sim­ply for shar­ing an enlight­ened soul with a dark world, a mir­a­cle because she was a messy human. 

Mary was – and remains – a mir­a­cle sim­ply for shar­ing an enlight­ened soul with a dark world, a mir­a­cle because she was a messy human.

I’ve had sex that result­ed in preg­nan­cy. And I have giv­en birth, sweat­ing and scream­ing and with­out any drugs to numb the con­sid­er­able pain. And I have become a par­ent, feed­ing my child from my body and giv­ing ter­ri­ble advice and lying wide-eyed deep in the night wor­ry­ing about my child’s future. 

And all of that is a mir­a­cle. When we strip Mary of her pas­sion, blood, milk, ter­ror, sweat, fierce­ness, and imper­fec­tion, we dehu­man­ize her. The patri­archy fears the pow­er of women. It was a 2nd-cen­tu­ry com­mit­tee of men that decid­ed the Christmas sto­ry be told with a com­plete­ly sin­less moth­er, for­ev­er set­ting an unreach­able goal for those who are bio­log­i­cal­ly designed to men­stru­ate, car­ry embryos, and nour­ish life with their bodies. 

Advent, like the last trimester of preg­nan­cy, is a time of wait­ing. Mary was whol­ly preg­nant, all stretch marks and leak­ing breasts at this point in the sto­ry. She’s ter­ri­fied in a way only new­ly expec­tant moth­ers can under­stand. And let’s not for­get she’s still a teenag­er, no more than sev­en­teen and prob­a­bly clos­er to twelve. She was car­ry­ing a refugee child not fathered by her hus­band. Her robe was sul­lied and her hair need­ed brushing. 

Whitewashing the real­i­ties of her expe­ri­ence doesn’t ele­vate the sto­ry. It makes it a fairy tale, a beau­ti­ful but unre­al vision. Give me the real Mary, breasts swollen and umbil­i­cal cord bloody as she sees her son for the first time. Not the world’s sal­va­tion, but her child. Her sal­va­tion, her grace. The same child who would grow to also make mis­takes and fal­ter and question. 

Because Mary and her son are both human. That’s the point. Grace and joy are avail­able to us all because we are human, not despite it. And it’s the con­trast of ter­ror and pain and wor­ry that allow grace and joy to be deeply felt. 

Mary was a moth­er, just like me, just like so many of you. Her sto­ry should not sep­a­rate or shame us. It should instead make us jubi­lant­ly scream, “Me too!” 

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.