I never really got Mary. Not Mary Magdalene; no, I certainly got her. I like to think that if I’d been around in Judea in AD 30ish I’d have joined Jesus’ band of followers, just like she did. I’d have left everything behind and gone on a grand adventure to change the world, not stayed at home. When, as a middle-aged teen, I found out about her characterisation as a Whore, the antithesis to the Other Mary’s Virgin, I was shocked. Leaving aside the diametrically opposed, two-dimensional versions of womanhood I saw before me, I was shocked at how long the whole Good Girl/Bad Girl thing had been going on (and no doubt for longer than that, too). For me, Mary the friend, not Mary the mother; she was the one who made more sense.
The Mary in all the plays, the one in the blue dress, the one pictured oh, so serene, so perfect in her putting others first, so haloed in her sexless femininity, she always seemed so vanilla, so unreal, so lacking in the frail, mistake making humanity so abundantly displayed by the disciples, and Jesus’ other followers, the ones with whom I could identify. Until, that is, I too had a baby.
Not that I felt it when I was waiting for him. By the time Christmas came my head was full of fluff and nappies and dreams and the slow motion contentment that hits you in the eighth month. The preparation for my baby was nothing like hers. My waiting bore no relation to hers. I faced no social disgrace. Any fear of death was countered by a birth plan, not exacerbated by stones.
No, it was when he arrived, and suddenly his future wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, when suddenly it wasn’t about dreams and hopes and silly joyful expectations that mothers feel when they look upon their firstborn for the first time, that it hit me.
I wasn’t alone.
It was before there was an online community of parents of children with Down’s syndrome. It was before I knew more than one other person who had a baby like mine. It was before I knew anything much apart from an isolating diagnosis, and, when I thought about her, and wondered why she was there, a continuous presence in all of the stories, I realised that I wasn’t the only mother to have knowledge about her baby, before he was even born, before he had even become a person, that rocked her world.
I wasn’t the only one to receive the bittersweet news that the baby, the one I had been waiting for, preparing my self for, my home for, wasn’t going to be the person that I thought he would. I wasn’t the only one to have foreknowledge about her child; a knowledge, while powerful, overwhelming in its responsibility, held inside its heart a worry, an anxiety, that all might not end well.
And in that moment, in those moments of revelation, in my subsequent pregnancies, the following advents to my firstborn, I understood her power. That, while we might, on the surface, think of her as some sort of ideal woman, the guardian of the home, the good girl who rode out the storm, her presence lends the story of Christmas, the story of Advent, of waiting, of expectation, an added depth.
While, on the surface, we think of Christmas in terms of gifts, for those of us with a Christian faith, of the Greatest Gift, Mary reminds me that there is a cost to motherhood. That in the dark heart of a cold midwinter, while there is certainly joy, there is also melancholy; an emptiness that reminds me to stop waiting, to take every moment as it comes, to enjoy the now, for we do not know what heat we may face tomorrow.