This advent, the walls of my office are lined with images of a pregnant Mary. In most of the images she radiates happiness. Her belly is round and in some of the images it emits a golden glow, like a belly halo. Nothing else about her is round. There is nothing puffy or swollen or aching about Mary. She doesn’t look uncertain or afraid. There is one image though, where her eyes are dull, her face is puffy, and she looks every bit the scared pregnant teenager. I am drawn to this image.
Throughout the generations of women who have been born, have lived and died, pregnancy has so often been a messy and complicated subject.
Certainly there is often joy connected with pregnancy, but for many the thought of pregnancy is also tinged with grief, and for still others, there is indifference. Not everyone, by virtue of having a uterus has any interest in becoming pregnant at all. Oh pregnancy. Some of us become pregnant when we don’t want to be. Others of us don’t become pregnant when we deeply long to be. Or a much wanted pregnancy ends in miscarriage or still birth. It is so complicated.
Today I am nearing my eighth month of pregnancy. I am deeply thankful. I long to meet this person inside me and to walk the path of motherhood. I am filled with a deep joy when I think about who this child might become. But these past months, and really the years leading up to them, have taught me to be distrustful of any talk about pregnancy and the time leading up to it as all joyfulness and glowing skin.
Through my experience and through conversation with other women, I have learned that the journey of pregnancy is usually more complicated than that.
This year, more than ever I am intrigued by the encounter between two pregnant women, Mary and her older relative Elizabeth, that we read about in the first chapter of Luke.
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[a] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
At a surface reading, it seems to be one of those joyful, Hallmark movie moments. A glowing Mary appears at Elizabeth’s door, and somehow Elizabeth knows that her young cousin is not just pregnant, but pregnant with the Messiah. She doesn’t ask questions, she just expresses her joy. Even the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb kicks with joy when Mary appears, we are told. Mary for her part, simply begins to sing a song of joy and gratitude and revolution, where people like her come out on top. From that point on, all we know of their time together is that Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months and then returned home.
And oh, I can believe there was joy in this moment. As these unexpected, unbelievable pregnancies brought the world as they knew it to end for both Mary and Elizabeth, there would have been great joy in being together.
In times of overwhelming change, there can be incredible beauty in simply being with someone else who understands. Who accepts. Who loves. Who supports.
But as I read this passage, as I encounter Elizabeth and Mary, I can’t help but wonder how the passage would read differently if it had been written by someone who understood the complex emotions surrounding fertility. I’m not that person. My experience is limited. And Mary’s story and Elizabeth’s story are very different from my own. I just want to put forward the idea that this encounter might not have been all joy and simplicity for either Elizabeth or Mary.
Here Elizabeth comes face to face with a pregnant Mary after Elizabeth herself has struggled with infertility for many years. Here Mary comes face to face with a pregnant Elizabeth, whose status as a married woman in her society means that her child will be accepted and welcomed by the community. The conversation, between these two women, while very powerful, might not have been easy.
This advent, as we read about John the Baptist coming to prepare the way, and about Jesus who shook the world around him upside down, I am thinking about their mothers and about the joy and complexity of (in)fertility, pregnancy, birth and motherhood.
*This post is based on a sermon I wrote for Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church and Hagerman Mennonite Church