First, gather the flowers.
At Mass a few weeks ago, my oldest boy leaned into my side while we stood to say the creed together. I recited the words on the projector screen, still prompting us with the new translation of the prayer after decades of The Version We Used To Say.
Absent-mindedly, I stumbled as happens so often, tripping over clumsy words that once were clear:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was born – dah! was incarnate! – of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Without thinking, I rubbed the basketball of my belly in that unconscious instinct of expectant mothers. I thought about birth and babies and started to grumble about why we didn’t say “born” anymore, why the abstract theological was deemed better than the concrete physical.
Then I felt baby’s quick jab to my right side, sharp enough to make me wince. And I felt my son’s tired lean into my left side, heavy enough to make me shift my footing.
And I realized. Maybe incarnate was a truer truth.
. . .
Second, arrange the stems.
Here’s the fact I forgot about incarnation: it was not a one-shot, abracadabra magical minute. Not the mysterious instant of the Spirit making a virgin Mary pregnant. Not the painful moment of pushing the baby into the world of cold and air.
If incarnation means God becoming fully human, that process took time.
Days and days of dark growth in the womb. Weeks and weeks of babyhood in his parents’ arms. Months and months of toddling steps and babbling words and bubbling emotions. Years and years of learning childhood’s lessons, adolescence’s growth, and adulthood’s maturity.
And she was helping to incarnate him through all of that.
Of course I understand theologically what we’re claiming in the creed. That the second Mary said yes and the divine light that was Jesus sparked within her, his life was fully human. I remember learning all the councils and heresies and theologians that fought to argue passionately for Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. I know why it’s essential Christian doctrine.
Yet I can’t help but think we lose sight of incarnation’s depth if we confine it to an angelic visitation or a virgin birth. I believe it was longer and messier and more exhausting. The lifelong journey that a mother’s love sticks around to see through to the end.
All the way to the cross.
. . .
Third, set in sunshine and water.
How long does it take to raise our babies?
Is it the nine months we carry them within us, or the years we spend waiting for the phone call that will bring them to our door?
Is it the eighteen years of childhood that society (and sarcastic jokes) dictate we’re in charge of their upbringing?
I think of all the parents I know with adult children, how they still lose sleep worrying at night. How they still hope they’ll check in after a long trip. How they still pray for their safety and dream of their success.
If it takes us a lifetime to become fully human – to try and grasp the beauty and the pain of this mysterious, fragile existence – then maybe bringing our babies to the fullness of life takes years, too.
Maybe “incarnate” is a better word than “born” to wrestle our arms around what it meant for Mary to give her daring yes to a life that she never imagined. To a life that would change our own.
. . .
Fourth, drink in the blooms.
If my boys ever offer me the chance to pick the book for naptime or bedtime (which rarely happens), I always reach for the same favorite.
Mama says be kind,
Mama says the rain will come,
But still the sun will shine.
I found the book in our college bookstore when my first baby was brand-new, and of course I cried as I flipped through the pages. Mothers from cultures around the world teaching their sons life’s essential lessons.
Mama says be loving,
Mama says be caring,
Mama says you’ve done God’s will
every time you’re sharing.
To be blessed with one, then two boys to pull onto my lap and share this story – of course it feels like pure gift. There is so much suffering in the world, so many couples crying for a child, so many children who know too much pain. That I can sit in a sunlit corner and rock these small, safe boys in my arms means all my jumbled heart can pray is thanks.
Because motherhood is the work of incarnation. Of daring to partner with God in helping these children become fully human.
A truth which one short line of our creed speaks each Sunday, easy to skip over if you miss it:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
And a truth which one children’s book states clear as a bell at its end:
Mama says help others,
And be the best you can.
I listened to what Mama said,
And now I am a man.