Advent overflows with the emotional weight of a double expectancy: looking for the Second Coming and anticipating the feast of the Incarnation. We can exult in the Incarnation well before December 25. After all, the Son of God was not only present once born in a manger, but while growing in Mary. Pregnancy offers some especially apt means to think upon that special expectancy. When we envision the Incarnation, we might conjure up a mental image not only of a lowly stable with ox and ass standing by, but also envision Mary great with child. Thinking about what it is like to wait for a baby—even an ordinary one—helps us to grasp the immensity of what Advent brings.
Perhaps the second Adam could have appeared like the first Adam, as a grown man. But in order to come to us as a baby, Jesus became present in Mary–Theotokos, God-bearer, in Eastern Orthodox tradition. We are told in the gospels that Mary pondered in her heart the things she learned about Jesus: the tidings of the angels, the miracles, later the Passion. But surely Mary was pondering from the Annunciation on. She was not only the vessel of the Incarnation but a witness to it too. The marvel of the Word becoming flesh occurred inside the body of Mary. And Mary got to behold that first hand.
Mary lived those expectant months in the presence of that astonishing work of God. For the good part of a year Mary’s task was to carry around the Son of God in her body. Caryll Houselander’s Advent meditation, The Reed of God, describes Mary’s pregnancy richly this way. Mary was holding Christ while doing other things, visiting Elizabeth in the mountains, doing the work of her household: “Walking in the streets of Nazareth to do her shopping, to visit her friends, she set his feet on the path to Jerusalem. Washing, kneading, weaving, sweeping, her hands prepared His hands for the nails. All her experience of the world around her was gathered to Christ growing in her.” She carried with her the promise of God as she passed her days, faithful in the labors of life. There is an awesome fitness in this. Mary went about the duties of being a creature while God through Christ in her was redeeming creation. Mary did not just give Jesus a warm spot to rest in for nine months. She shared with him her life.
This, after all, is what women do when carrying a baby. Thinking about ordinary pregnancy is important here. Admittedly that figure of speech is a not a little ridiculous, as though there were any “ordinary” pregnancy. Pregnancy is never just ordinary to the mother bearing a baby or a family waiting for one, or really to any of us, for whom the event that brought us into the world can hardly be called ordinary.
Yet ordinary human pregnancy affords the mother an astounding kind of revelation. Procreation is an act of man and woman together, but pregnancy also is a collaboration between a mother and God.
Theologians across centuries have disputed the means and timing by which a fetus gets a soul. Whenever that might happen, throughout the period of pregnancy, that event would occur within the body of the mother. Each new person-to-be is not merely a copy of the human species but a unique human being. A mother has the high privilege of being present at the creation of a new person. She is able to witness what God is doing, as no one else yet can until the child’s birth. Like Mary, the ordinary mother experiences this work of God in the midst of her own work.
The work of expecting a child is action and contemplation come together, a vigilant expectancy rather than a passive waiting. There is a lot to do to nurture a child in utero, from careful eating to purposeful abstentions, with close watch kept and firm hope in a coming good. The mother has special vantage from which to behold the debut of a person never before seen in the universe. She does not meet her baby only after the child is delivered, or when she sees an ultrasound, or when a doctor lets her listen to a heartbeat. Instead, a mother meets her baby in moments throughout her days of expectation.
That front-row seat for the revelation of a new person is a gift, one that comes to a woman who extends this remarkable hospitality to a child. Mary offered that hospitality to the Son of God. Still more breathtaking, though, is the way the Incarnation demonstrates God’s approach to us. The Incarnation was not only a matter of God becoming man, but also of taking on thereby all that humanity entailed. God taking flesh takes in, accommodates, creation as a whole. The late Notre Dame philosopher of science Ernan McMullin wrote: “Scripture traces the preparation for the coming of Christ back through Abraham to Adam… When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.”
The very idea of this brims over, not to be contained only in Advent or the feast it precedes. This penitential season, bleak and midwinterish as it tends to come, itself bears great fullness. Mary, pregnant with the Incarnate Word, offers a reminder to carry that Word about with us throughout the season, waiting in eager expectation for what is to come.
Agnes R. Howard is assistant professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. She contributes to the religious history blog at Anxious Bench. She and her husband, Tal, have three children.
Photo: Robert Aichinger