Please read this after today’s post! This post is from four years ago . . .
I have always been mystified by Advent. The four weeks prior to Christ’s birth has stirred within me a sense of wonder and longing. The emptiness of the manger until Christmas morning always awakens the empty spaces within my own heart. I have asked God to expose my mangers, and fill them with a new birthing of the Christ within me.
Still, this Christmas, there is something more rising, hollowing me out. This Christmas is the first Christmas I feel an emptiness for more reason than the deviance in my own heart. This is the first Christmas I have felt the reality of an empty manger, left only for Christ’s love to fill.
When I opened myself to motherhood two years ago, I experienced a conversion of heart unlike anything else I had ever known before. As a child and young adult, my love for God was as real to me as my love for my parents. I couldn’t put a date or a time stamp on it; still, it was my identity.
However, being a “Christian,” a “Catholic” did not necessarily mean that I was walking with Christ, giving up all that I had known before. I was, indeed, in love with the idea of being in love with Jesus. Still, the true cost did not display itself until I had something to sacrifice.
That something was myself. My entire life, I had fashioned a future. I did the right thing, staved off sin, emerged from the ashes of despair and gave the glory to God. I was a Saul. I deserved fair treatment, deserved for my life to go a certain way. I deserved to judge, to lord above others.
And then, something happened to me: God broke through. It was a horrible experience: a tearing down and a breaking that did not seem to end. I was tested in every way. I was hurricaned within, strung up and beaten by the winds of change.
No one could tell, really. I looked the same, and my life was going well. But inside I was a torrent. Inside, I was dying to myself.
One day, it happened: I started to pray Mary’s prayer. “Let it be done unto me according to your word.” There were no if’s involved, nothing about what I would do or accomplish. It was not really about me anymore. Instead, this prayer began to fashion within me (dare I say it?) a submission to my destiny, a destiny I no longer controlled.
I was in the church with my rosary, starting to pray it. I realized that throughout all of my schooling, I still had not memorized the prayers. How will I be a good mother if I cannot even remember this? I realized this pink string of beads in my hands was useless without my prayers. I lowered my head in embarrassment, only to hear the voices of several older women in the front of the church beginning to pray: Glory be to the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit . . . Something said to me, I will teach you how to be a mother.
My head was empty that morning; I left the church with a full heart and a knowledge that the more empty-handed I was, the more malleable the clay of my soul became.
I became pregnant several months later. While I was full of joy, a cloud hung above me during my pregnancy with Caleb. I felt continually in a darkened world, with only brief interludes of peace. I struggled to maintain equilibrium, often finding no will to perform daily tasks, even the basic preparation for my child’s arrival. I was afraid of everything: not having enough, not being prepared, of leaving him alone in this world. I experienced fits of sorrow that would overtake me while I was driving in my car alone, forced to pull over because I couldn’t see through my own tears. I loved him, as if he had been my child for a hundred years. We talked daily, hourly, through the night. I felt that I had known him from some other place and time. I felt that I had been pregnant with him my entire life.
And then, he died. At my thirty-six week appointment, they could no longer find his heartbeat. I screamed and kicked; my precious Caleb was gone. I sat up from the ultrasound table in shock, and said to the doctor, “I’ve been a chaplain. Now I’m the patient”.
I laid in my parents’ bed in what I can only describe as a posture of submission. The people coming in the room to talk to me were like buzzing flies around my head. I held the phone, counting the minutes until my husband’s plane would land and he would be home with me.
I laid in bed the next night and day, laboring in silence and without physical pain, as my soul shook. I could barely string a thought, save one: Hail Mary, Full of grace! The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, be with us sinners now and at the hour of our death amen.
She was there with me, a slight hand upon my back. She ushered me into her scene of agony, and there we stood, mother and daughter, beholding the crucified Christ.
What it is to be a mother! Christ’s words “This is my body, broken for you” parallels the travails of labor and birth. I prayed in the hospital bed, this is my body, broken for you, no longer angry or entitled but privileged to be a woman, to give such a sacrifice, to love past temporality. All that I am is offered up in this prayer: let it be done. Let me break, crack, swell, and moan if it is your will. I am nothing but for your grace indwelled. I cannot even reach for you without your offering of strength.
It has been a hard road since that holy night my son was born, silently and sweetly. We held him in our arms, knowing the nursery at home would never welcome him. My arms that had ached so long to hold him could not squeeze or feel enough to sustain me after I finally let him go.
I wondered at Mary’s arms, aching for Jesus as he lay dying on the cross. I wondered, even still, at the empty hollow He left within her as He ascended into heaven.
My empty manger this Christmas is not one I have to fashion for show. It is a real, hollowed room that is waiting, waiting . . .
The child growing within me will fill that room someday. But, there will always be an empty manger in my heart: a brokenness that cannot be filled but by the birthing of Christ’s eternal promise. I must ask for His renewal constantly; His power graces me with the will to ask.
Longing assumes new form when one stares at a manger and realizes that it is the picture of one’s own heart.