I'll never forget the moment I first laid eyes on my niece, Lucy. I'd been restlessly following the text-message updates all day, and now I was standing before a few-hours-old baby. I had never seen anything more perfect. What a miracle she was — tiny, exquisitely formed features, breathing, and even slightly opening her blue eyes. It took my breath away. Where there had been just hope and waiting, there was now a person.
A few feet away, propped in a hospital bed, was an equally breathtaking miracle: a woman who had just birthed this new life into being. My sister-in-law, Jenni, was exhausted, trembling, and beautiful. I marveled at her, too, she who was a picture of grit and grace. She embodied the strength and courage of love.
And the greatest miracle of all: This is how God came and dwelt among us!
As a vowed religious, I'll never carry growing life in my womb or look upon a child created from my very own DNA. This Advent season, rich with images of pregnancy and birth, I found myself longing for the wisdom of women who have experienced those things. I sense that they must have special insight into the mysteries we celebrate. The desire prompted me to email my closest friends who are mothers and mothers-to-be and ask them: How has your experience of pregnancy and motherhood impacted your understanding of Advent?
The responses I received are beautiful. What strikes me most is their profound simplicity. They are rooted, honest, practical, and deeply loving. Although intense theological conversations about the Incarnation in my graduate-school classroom are stimulating, these women know that truth in their own beings. They have much to teach us on our Advent pilgrimage.
Reorientation: From the earliest days of a new pregnancy, the couple's priorities shift. Their energy, thoughts, hopes, dreams, and prayers become reoriented around the little miracle taking shape. Jill says, "No one is truly prepared and ready to bring a child into the world." And yet they begin to make themselves ready, transforming their hearts and homes, knowing that their lives will be forever changed with the arrival of the baby. Similarly, this time of year reminds us of the life-altering gift and the responsibility of the Incarnation and our year-round Christian call. Living concurrently in Advent and Christmas, how do I orient my life around Christ?
Waiting: Katie describes the experience of waiting in pregnancy as a mixture of excitement and anxiety. With Mary, she asked, "How can this be?" Sometimes it came in joyful wonder, and sometimes it came with apprehension. How will I know what to do? Will the baby be healthy? Who will this little child be, and where will God lead them? At times, it was hard to grasp the reality that life was growing within, because it felt like nothing was happening except morning sickness! Then, the occasional kick would assure of the miraculous life within. On blissful days and difficult days, the process cannot be rushed. How am I holding the space of waiting this Advent?
Preparation: Pregnant waiting is far from passive. There is so much preparation required: reading up on what to expect, doctor visits, buying necessary supplies, organizing a nursery, and more. Charissa shared that she has to be careful about what kind of preparation she gives most of her energy to. She says, "This period of preparation is not only to prepare for the child physically; it's also a period to prepare ourselves to be transformed into the best parents we can be — into people who are intentional nurturers of this new life." And so it is in Advent. To what kinds of preparation do I give my energy?
Pondering: In pregnancy and motherhood, Christie feels drawn to the Advent call to "ponder all things in her heart." She writes: "The world moves so fast ... It is easy to lose sight of the truly important things in the noise. In Scripture, I find the call to slow down and to simply be present. To ponder and hold close in my heart my toddler's funny sentences and actions, to hold close to the small flutters of the new life within." As a person of Advent, how do I slow down and ponder God in the everyday?
Trust: Recognizing her dependence on God's action, Kaitlin finds herself echoing Mary's "let it be done unto me according to your word." She writes: "So much of pregnancy and childbirth is out of my control. The nausea in early months isn't cured by medicine or visits to the doctor. The baby grows without my effort or assistance. And at the end of pregnancy, labor starts on its own schedule. Mary's trust in the Lord, her unconditional yes, is a beautifully perfect model. That 'yes' doesn't mean life will be easy ... But it means that God will provide." In my Advent journey, how do I wait, prepare, and ponder, but trust that God will do the rest?
Community: Pregnancy is anything but a solo journey. My friends all gave thanks for the village that helped and helps them get through. Erica treasured being able to share joy and excitement with those closest to her. Particularly special was hearing stories from other mothers at various stages in their lives; there is something universal around which they all could gather. "As mothers," she says, "we are blessed with the most amazing opportunity to care for and nurture a tiny human being with all of the love and strength that can be mustered through some of the most challenging times of our lives." We, too, need to nurture our spiritual lives together. Advent is, by nature, communal. With whom do I share support, stories, and reflections as we approach the mystery of Christmas?
Openness: The journey is unpredictable. Lauren shared that as a young married woman, she felt a strong call toward motherhood. One year, her dream came true in Advent, only to lead to a miscarriage a few days before Christmas. Joy turned to despair. Facing the light of the Advent wreath, she found herself in darkness. God didn't will the pain, but, somehow, God was in it. She writes, "Now as a mom to twins, I look back on that dark time and can see that God was molding me for something more. My understanding of Advent grew [to include openness to] the Christ we find in the messiness." How am I open to finding God in the messiness of my life this Advent?
It's true: Our spiritual lives, like pregnancy, are messy. No matter how neat and tidy the Nativity story has become, mothers know the rawness of it all. Mary had morning sickness and swollen ankles and fatigue. She felt emotion so deep it made her weep. Her water broke, and her body heaved in sweat and pain as she labored like so many women have throughout history. She cried out in anguish and, later, in joy. There was water and blood. And there was love. Instinctual, unconditional love that washed over her as she gazed upon the face of her newborn son.
Pregnancy and delivery are as real as real can be, the most natural human experience that unites every person throughout history. It's no accident that God chose to enter our world through that process, made of the same stuff we are, in the ultimate act of solidarity. In Jesus, we see the truth of a loving God, with us beyond the scope of our imaginations, and we see the sacredness of being human. God is part of us. We, like pregnant mothers, carry the divine within. A prayer that my friend Caroline prays this Advent, during her first pregnancy, says it beautifully:
"Lord Jesus, I lovingly pray for this sweet hope that I keep within my womb. You have granted me the immense gift of a tiny little life, living in my own life, and I humbly thank you for choosing me as an instrument of your love. In this sweet waiting, help me to live in a constant attitude of self-surrender to your will. Amen."
A special thanks to Caroline Alge, Kate Beck, Lauren Bjork, Katie Contri, Kaitlin DiNapoli, Christie Grieshop, Jill Magner, Lori McIlvaine, Charissa Qiu, and Erica Schmiedebusch for sharing themselves!
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is passionate about religious life. She currently studies theology at Xavier University and serves as bilingual pastoral minister at a local parish.]