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Happy Mother’s Day


OK, explain this one to me. You’ve got a young girl (immaculately conceived, but she probably doesn’t know that), a virgin, who’s about to be married off to a much older guy. Then she’s visited by an angel who tells her she’s been chosen for a rather thankless job, and now she’s pregnant by the holy spirit and gets to tell her hubby-to-be about it herself. She manages that task without being killed, makes a long journey on donkeyback while very pregnant, gives birth in a stable, and doesn’t even get any time alone with her kid before his presence starts causing a hullabaloo . . . and the holiday is about the baby?!

There are plenty of things in the story of J.C. that make him worthy of his own holiday. Even if you’re not technically Christian, the idea of forgiveness (or, one of my favorite interpretations, that no matter how bad humanity screws up, we can’t kill God) embodied in Easter can have some serious kick. He gave some impressive sermons too, and taught some pretty good lessons that get obscured daily by his followers and nonfollowers alike.

But Christmas? That’s Mary’s business. That night, she’s doing the work, she’s calling the shots. Destiny or not, she made that birth happen. And, to be quite honest, she kept doing most of the work for all those years that get left out of our current texts too. It’s not exactly easy to raise the son of God, especially when various kings want him dead, and even more especially if he’s the kind of hell-raiser (pardon the awkward association there) many of the lost gospels make him out to be. She had difficult choices to make, and an unimaginably difficult version of letting go to do.

But we forget about it. I can think of only one carol that really alludes to Mary’s pre-birth situation—the “Cherry Tree Carol,” in which she screws up her courage to tell Joseph, and he throws a fit until in-vitro Jesus works a little miracle to calm him down. Otherwise, Mary is meek and mild and sweet, and we hear more about the shepherds (and for that matter, more about Santa Claus and lovers in a one-horse open sleigh) than about her.

Not that this is unusual when it comes to births in general. A lot of my friends are having children right about now, and much as I love them, it’s easy to see in myself the tendency to let the presence of baby eclipse the presence of parents. Divine child or no, Mary is not alone in fading quickly to the background. We’re hard-wired to respond to cuteness, helplessness, and that whole head-and-eyes-larger-proportional-to-the-body thing that makes us immediately recognize and want to cuddle all young mammals. And for those of us who haven’t gotten to parenthood yet, the developmental process up close is utterly fascinating.

But I’m also pretty lucky to know a number of people who, while wonderful parents, are not letting themselves be isolated or deindividualized by parenthood. There’s no way parenthood doesn’t change you, but these people have insisted upon creating worlds where their social connections stay active (with kids in tow), their children get to know other adults, and because adults tend to outnumber the kids, regular life and kid life can coexist. I think this kind of balance is good for children, for adults, and for rethinking Christmas.

One of the enduring powers of the Christmas holiday is its ripeness for multiple metaphors. Light after darkness, in the grand solstice tradition. Salvation coming from a wandering, homeless family. Redemption coming into the world through an innocent, helpless babe rather than a king or warrior.

But out of these many worthy options, I feel the need this year to focus on the idea of choosing to birth your own salvation, your own empowerment. If children, literal and metaphorical, are the hope of the future, then parents, literal and metaphorical, are the hope of the present. Both need nurturing, and celebrating.

This season I want to celebrate parents, literal and metaphorical: the ones who came into this young or feeling like they had no choice; the ones who worked hard for the chance, fought for and protected their choices; the ones whose children are going off to dangerous lives; the ones who have parented the children of others, and cared for the parents of others when the going go gets tough. I want to celebrate the people who birthed or midwived movements and art that have gone beyond them and those behind-the-scenes people who don’t always get credit for the work that they do helping others get started.

Thanks be for people who love the future by loving in the present.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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