What do you see when you look at these paintings*? Do you see Mary carrying her son, Jesus? Do you see hope and promise and a light in the darkness? Or do you see fear and uncertainty and the potential for life-altering loss? As someone who has lost a child, the Christmas story is complicated to say the least.
I’ve sat in church and studied these paintings for the last three Advent seasons. I’ve been in very different places each year. Two years ago we were grieving my mother in law and an early miscarriage, but I was pregnant with my son Arthur and very hopeful. Last year, we were grieving Arthur. I was also pregnant with our daughter and terrified that we’d lose her too. This year, I get to hold a healthy, wiggly six month old as I study the paintings and hear the familiar story – a young, unmarried woman becomes unexpectedly pregnant and gives birth to the son of God alone in a manger. She carries the light of the world and delivers him safely to save us all.
There is nothing simple about this story if you’ve been through what we’ve been through.
I am not a biblical scholar and I have just as many questions about my faith as I do answers. This post is not about that. It’s about bringing your whole self in to the Christmas story, grief and all, and coming out with a more complex and beautiful understanding.
Since the birth of my daughter, I’ve felt a lot of healing sneak back in to my life. I laugh and feel joy a little more easily. I have moments where I feel more like who I was before we experienced big loss. And I don’t feel some of the difficult emotions around pregnancy and birth as strongly as I did before. As we all know, healing is not forgetting and it’s not “moving on”, but there’s growth and joy and that’s what I’ve experienced since my little girl entered the world.
But when I saw these Advent paintings again last week, my heart dropped. I was immediately reminded of how terrifying it is to be pregnant.
In my pregnancies, the stakes felt so high – would the precious child in my belly make it or not? One did, one did not. Nothing is guaranteed. How on earth did Mary make it through believing the stakes were so much higher? She was carrying light of the world. I had NSTs, BPPs, and the on call reassurance of OBs and MFMs to convince me that all was well. These did not ease my anxiety completely. What did Mary have? She had a few visits from angels and her faith, but was it enough? Did she believe? Or was she just as terrified as any loss mom is when she hits the date of her previous loss or inches towards delivery?
The arrival of any healthy baby is a freakin’ miracle. As I hold my own little miracle tightly, I’m overwhelmed by the love and light in the Advent story and in these paintings of Mary. I’m also overcome with fear as I know how tenuous a healthy delivery can be. It is truly amazing that an all powerful God chose to send his son to be delivered by a woman. It’s amazing that the woman and the child made it.
As a more naïve person, I let myself skip to the end of the Advent story far too quickly – a healthy mom and a healthy baby receiving visitors and hopeful about the future.
But now, I recognize the darkness in this story and how the uncertainty and fear truly makes the light that much more miraculous.
No matter where you are on your journey, I hope that you too can see the light in the darkness this time of year. That is the promise and it is truly a miracle.
*These paintings were done by a friend of mine, Kerri Humphreys, and are shared with her permission. I didn’t realize it until I reached out to her about this post, but she was feeling some very complex emotions about having children and a family when she painted these and mourning a big loss herself. They came to her when she needed hope in a dark place.