A Mother’s Christmas Epiphany: Part I
A confirmed heretic realises that this Jesus and Mary stuff can actually be pretty nice.
It’s November, 2019. My son Arlo is seven months old. My husband Julian, who, amongst many other talents, is a much-loved children’s author, has been invited to a book festival for kids, in Oldenburg. The hosts arrange a hotel room for him, and seeing as we haven’t left Berlin since well before Arlo was born, we decide we’ll all go, and have our first family holiday.
The trip is marvellous. Of course, Arlo is not able to stay quiet in the auditoriums during Julian’s events, so I take the little guy exploring the city’s parks and cobbled streets while his daddy performs. Julian’s final obligation for the weekend is a radio interview. I arrive a little before he’s supposed to wrap up, with Ari strapped to my chest, and wander around the lobby while we wait. Against one wall there is a little gift stand, with a variety of decorations for the soon-coming Christmas. On one of the shelves is a small brass ornament. Of Mary holding a newborn Jesus, with Joseph wrapped around her. A complete family embrace in one little metallic orb.
Now, historically, Jesus stuff is not my bag. Not at all. My father’s family was Christian, and my mother’s was Jewish, but neither parent wanted either of those faiths, or any others, in their house. Occasionally, it did sneak into my childhood - like the time my first grade teacher had our class learn a song about Jesus Christ being our lord. My mom got pretty cross about that. Understandably. But the result was that from a young age, I got the impression that anything with Jesus in it was not good, and that I should be wary of it. And as I grew older, and studied world politics and history, it seemed to me that religion mainly functioned as an excuse for people to abuse, enslave, murder, or otherwise dehumanise each other. I did not see much good in any of it.
But as I wait for Julian, I keep circling back to that same brass bauble. The tiny family of three, melded into one. Why do I like it so much?
The answer manages to surprise me, even though it is obvious: it’s because I am at the heart of such a trio now. I am the Mary-figure in the middle. Not virginal or saintly, by any stretch. But wholly focused on the new life I have brought into this world, which seems, no matter how I look at it, an entirely miraculous thing.
For the first time in my life, I am seeing the Nativity as not just a red-flag of something I’m meant to avoid, and not as a symbol of a system responsible for centuries of crushing evangelism. But as the scene it actually depicts; a new young family, full of love, but very much in need of kindness from others.
By the time Julian comes out to greet us, I’ve had an epiphany.
“It’s about babies!” I exclaim at him, with genuine, delighted surprise. “And how people should be nice to them!”
This year will be our fourth Christmas with Arlo. And while I am no longer lactating, or visibly crumbling from the exhaustion of night feedings, I find I am still moved by images of Mary with her baby. Sometimes, intensely so. For example…
In September, my sister came to visit, so we took a train down to Prague. There, I wandered into the grand and strikingly-spired gothic cathedral in the main square of the old town. It turns out its full Czech name translates into English as ‘The Church of Mother of God Before Tyn’. And, as I probably should have anticipated from such a name, it had a fair few images of Mary holding a baby Jesus.
Before, I had thought Christians were only looking to this mother figure for comfort, as a child would. Perhaps because many do. Or perhaps because I had only been a child myself, and could only imagine the world from a child’s perspective. But now that I was also a mother, I found myself relating to this mother icon as something of a peer. I could see worry in her eyes, in so many renderings of her. But there was often also a kind of beseeching quality to her gaze. And I realised: she’s not there to offer mercy to the masses, but to implore it. She is asking us: Can you not see how vulnerable my child is? And how golden he is? And what hazards await him in this world? Will you not open your heart to him?
For once, I was able to be in a cathedral as something more than a complete tourist. I could stop judging the religious imagery for its style and see through to the substance of what it was trying, over and over and over again, to convey. And that, it seemed to me, was simply this: the fate of humanity rests in the arms of a mother and her child… and how all of us choose to treat them.
That was precisely the thing I had come to believe most strongly since my son was born. And it was startling to find my belief reflected back to me, in this of all settings. Through artwork I had thought woefully gaudy, and through an institution I had thought hopelessly misogynist.
I felt strange. I kneeled on one of the prayer benches, in front of an unusually, beautifully dark-haired depiction of Mary with her baby. And I found myself scribbling down a kind of prose so vehement that it seemed to be a sort of... sermon. Not something that I ever expected to produce. But something that delivered itself from the core of me, without my asking.
In October, my mother came to visit, and we took Arlo on a train journey over to Poznán. One of the main things to see there is the oldest cathedral in Poland. I thought I would have to leave Arlo outside with my mom while I went in to look around. But he surprised me; he wanted to explore the vast, mysterious interior enough to actually be quiet. For like, probably a full fifteen minutes. That is a lot for a three year old boy. It certainly is for mine, anyhow. But he held my hand, and calmly went from one chapel to the next, looking at the many statues and carvings and paintings and mosaics along the way. Of course, many of these works of art depicted Jesus and Mary. We’d never discussed anything religious before, and I wondered how I might explain it simply. And I realised, I could just tell him what was literally being depicted in all of these renderings:
“It’s a story. About a mommy and a baby. And how happy people were that he was born. Isn’t that nice?”
“Yeah,” he said.
And I found myself smiling, and squeezing his hand, and actually believing what I had said.
It was nice.
Am I turning into a Christian? I don’t think so. There are key features in each of the Abrahamic religions that I just can’t hang with. I still fully expect that, as Melville puts it in Moby Dick, “I’ll die a pagan.” But after decades of only finding religion baffling, it is a pleasant surprise to have found something in it that really does resonate. I really appreciate the way this faith carves out such a space at its forefront to celebrate a Sacred Mother, alongside the new life which arrives through her. The fact that so many insist on her being a virgin mother I still find weird to the point of being creepy, but I choose to believe the common theory that it’s merely a mistranslation, and set it aside, and focus on the miraculous work of fertility and motherhood she represents. Something societies across the lands and ages have celebrated in many formats, and quite rightly; the making, birthing, and sustaining of new life is a primal, astonishing undertaking - and if anything in is sacred, it is that. Which is something our world seems in sore need of remembering at the moment. I will take the reminder, the celebration, and the honouring of maternal body and soul, in any format I can get it. I’d be just as glad for ones flanked in cats, or fields of grain, but crowned in gold will do just fine.
p.s. I’ve gone back to that little ‘sermon’ I wrote in Prague, and I think it stands up. So I’ve polished it a little, and I’d like to share it. Christmas seems like the appropriate time, so keep an eye out for that in the days ahead.
p.p.s. Although my appreciation for the more religious aspects of Christmas is recent, my enjoyment of Christmas pop music is long-standing. I made a special playlist this year, and offer it here as a wee Christmas gift:
Since I had children I celebrate Xmas as a festival about giving birth to boys - glad I’m not alone - my house is now filled with postcards of the virgin and child.
This is such a good piece Thank you. I feel the same way.