First, gather the flowers.
At Mass a few weeks ago, my oldest boy leaned into my side while we stood to say the creed together. I recited the words on the projector screen, still prompting us with the new translation of the prayer after decades of The Version We Used To Say.
Absent-mindedly, I stumbled as happens so often, tripping over clumsy words that once were clear:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was born – dah! was incarnate! – of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Without thinking, I rubbed the basketball of my belly in that unconscious instinct of expectant mothers. I thought about birth and babies and started to grumble about why we didn’t say “born” anymore, why the abstract theological was deemed better than the concrete physical.
Then I felt baby’s quick jab to my right side, sharp enough to make me wince. And I felt my son’s tired lean into my left side, heavy enough to make me shift my footing.
And I realized. Maybe incarnate was a truer truth.
. . .
Second, arrange the stems.
Here’s the fact I forgot about incarnation: it was not a one-shot, abracadabra magical minute. Not the mysterious instant of the Spirit making a virgin Mary pregnant. Not the painful moment of pushing the baby into the world of cold and air.
If incarnation means God becoming fully human, that process took time.
Days and days of dark growth in the womb. Weeks and weeks of babyhood in his parents’ arms. Months and months of toddling steps and babbling words and bubbling emotions. Years and years of learning childhood’s lessons, adolescence’s growth, and adulthood’s maturity.
And she was helping to incarnate him through all of that.
Of course I understand theologically what we’re claiming in the creed. That the second Mary said yes and the divine light that was Jesus sparked within her, his life was fully human. I remember learning all the councils and heresies and theologians that fought to argue passionately for Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. I know why it’s essential Christian doctrine.
Yet I can’t help but think we lose sight of incarnation’s depth if we confine it to an angelic visitation or a virgin birth. I believe it was longer and messier and more exhausting. The lifelong journey that a mother’s love sticks around to see through to the end.
All the way to the cross.
. . .
Third, set in sunshine and water.
How long does it take to raise our babies?
Is it the nine months we carry them within us, or the years we spend waiting for the phone call that will bring them to our door?
Is it the eighteen years of childhood that society (and sarcastic jokes) dictate we’re in charge of their upbringing?
I think of all the parents I know with adult children, how they still lose sleep worrying at night. How they still hope they’ll check in after a long trip. How they still pray for their safety and dream of their success.
If it takes us a lifetime to become fully human – to try and grasp the beauty and the pain of this mysterious, fragile existence – then maybe bringing our babies to the fullness of life takes years, too.
Maybe “incarnate” is a better word than “born” to wrestle our arms around what it meant for Mary to give her daring yes to a life that she never imagined. To a life that would change our own.
. . .
Fourth, drink in the blooms.
If my boys ever offer me the chance to pick the book for naptime or bedtime (which rarely happens), I always reach for the same favorite.
Mama says be kind,
Mama says the rain will come,
But still the sun will shine.
I found the book in our college bookstore when my first baby was brand-new, and of course I cried as I flipped through the pages. Mothers from cultures around the world teaching their sons life’s essential lessons.
Mama says be loving,
Mama says be caring,
Mama says you’ve done God’s will
every time you’re sharing.
To be blessed with one, then two boys to pull onto my lap and share this story – of course it feels like pure gift. There is so much suffering in the world, so many couples crying for a child, so many children who know too much pain. That I can sit in a sunlit corner and rock these small, safe boys in my arms means all my jumbled heart can pray is thanks.
Because motherhood is the work of incarnation. Of daring to partner with God in helping these children become fully human.
A truth which one short line of our creed speaks each Sunday, easy to skip over if you miss it:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
And a truth which one children’s book states clear as a bell at its end:
Mama says help others,
And be the best you can.
I listened to what Mama said,
And now I am a man.
A journey of four days, each unique.
With only a few short weeks to go before baby’s birth, I see these feasts through a new slant. Each like its own stage of labor, particular and progressing. Anticipated but still unexpected.
The gentle beginning.
The increased pain.
The powerful transition.
The final push.
The question is how to journey through all four, patient and present, without wanting to skip over all that comes between.
. . .
When you know you’re in labor, call me, she says, a steady confidence behind her steely grey eyes that have seen thousands of babies birthed into the world. We’ll meet you outside the hospital so we can walk and talk and decide when you want to go in.
And we’ll go get you some food first, she adds, turning to pick up the Doppler to check my baby’s heartbeat. You’ll need to keep up your strength for what comes next.
Thursday is washing and feeding. Prepare your body: eat and drink. Let your feet be washed. Bend your own knees to serve others. Try to steel yourself for what comes next, the sacrifice and the suffering.
Except you can never ready yourself for what Friday will bring. It will catapult you back into the arms of God.
. . .
An empty due date comes and goes. I am the only one who notices.
Alone that night, I light a small candle. Another baby kicks and squirms inside me. Is it worth mourning when my body is rounded and ripe again? Of course. The heart once wounded never heals the same.
I remember how it broke me open, the birth-that-was-not-birth. When I walked into the hospital a month ago for routine tests, my whole body tensed at the memory.
I worry that contractions will trigger the fear and grief again. I worry that we could lose, again.
Friday is suffering and sacrifice. Step into a bare church, stripped stark of its presence. Listen to stories of hearts and bodies breaking. Remember the physical pain of love.
But do not forget that Saturday still waits. Dawn’s first hints that despair and loss will be overshadowed by strange new hope.
. . .
Baptism has many symbols, he explains, ticking them off on his fingers while the couple in front of me fuss over their newborn in the car seat carrier.
Water. Light. Oil. A white garment. And one more in our church that you won’t find anywhere else. Can you guess what it is?
My head snaps back to attention, lulled into laziness by baptism classes before and graduate studies before that. I wonder what our deacon means.
The tomb. Next time you walk by our baptismal font, take a look at its shape. It looks like a tomb. Or a coffin. Because we are baptized into Christ’s death before we rise with him to new life.
And we want our wriggling newborn to be plunged into precisely that, I think. Could anything sound crazier? Starkest darkness before the light.
Saturday is waiting and transition. Pause for a moment between death and life. Sit in the tension between agony and delight. Hold a candle to welcome the newest Christians, the ones who shape their lives to a tomb filled in sorrow and opened in surprise.
So do not give up when you fear you cannot make it through. Transition means the joy is almost within your grasp.
. . .
Do you know what you’re having?
Again and again, perfect strangers pose the question. I have to bite back the sarcastic reply before it slips past my tongue – I think it’s a baby - and respond with a kinder smile. We’re keeping it a surprise.
After Easter Mass the gathering space swells with people swarming into pews or spilling out into the parking lot. The grandmother of the family who often sit behind our motley crew reaches out to grab my elbow as I pass.
Remind me, are your boys getting a brother or a sister?
We’ll have to wait and see, I tell her. Not much longer!
She nods, satisfied. And turning to go, she adds, It will be a blessing for your family no matter what.
Sunday is rising and revelation. The miracle bursting forth. What seemed impossible is now before our eyes in flesh and blood. Letting loose an Alleluia we have waited long to hear.
But still we hold traces of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in our Sunday grasp.
To remind us how the journey that brought joy was a winding road through mystery and death. This year, as in every other year. This birth, as in every other birth.
“Mommy, I don’t want to die.”
His big blue eyes stare up at me, full of – what? Worry? Seriousness? Wonder?
We’ve been revisiting this conversation for months, variations on a theme: Mommy, I don’t want to go to be with God. Mommy, I want to live to be 100. Mommy, I don’t want you to die.
He hasn’t yet brushed with death, not in the aching loss of one he loves. But he’s a curious child, and his love of numbers and wonder about God swirl together to stir up questions of how old God is and how old people can be.
All of which added up in his head to a budding realization of finitude in the face of the infinite.
What do I say? Blunder through the typical lines about how I hope he’ll have a long life, and then when his life is done, he’ll get to go be with God in a new way, and God loves him even more than any person ever could, so wouldn’t that be amazing?
Except, of course, it’s all strange and skeptical enough to make wise adults anxious.
So why would any precocious preschooler accept it at face value either?
. . .
Every year on my birthday, I find myself genuinely astonished to still be here.
I only realized in the past few years that most people don’t share this stark sense of mortality, not at the tender age of thirty-something anyway. And while I wouldn’t say that I wake each morning eager to stare my own death in the face, whenever I think about the length of my life I only see so far ahead of me.
So each March I honestly marvel at how I’ve been blessed to have these many years to my name.
You can analyze it easily as any armchair therapist. My older brother died of cancer when I was 10, so I grew up living with death and loss and grief in a way that many children do not. All of that made me who I am, shaped my faith and my worldview in unmistakable ways, here endeth the college admissions essay.
But now as a mother to young ones waking up to the strange and sad ways the world works, I wonder what I should pass on to them from my own sense of mortality and what I might need to set aside.
Keeping death daily before our eyes is St. Benedict’s healthy advice to his brothers, but how helpful is this for preschoolers?
Mystery is good. Morbidity is not.
So we talk about not being afraid of death, because it is part of life. We talk about the love that is waiting for us in whatever comes next, because it is full of God who is love.
We talk about how some people might live to be almost 100 like Great-Grandpa, and how some people might only live to be 21 like Uncle Jay. We talk about how we can’t know everything that God knows or make everything happen in the way we would like. But we can trust that God will take care of us.
Is that enough? For now, perhaps. If my wee ones continue to be blessed with a childhood free from trauma or loss, unlike so many children in the world.
But if they are not – if death or sickness or suffering enter into this home as an unwelcome guest, the darkest thoughts that only the thin, lonely hours before dawn tempt me to imagine – will any of that make sense? Or sustain them?
Motherhood is supposed to be about life: its nurturing and nourishing. But is there a place for death in this daily work and love, too?
. . .
Lent is a grateful time to practice all this death-talk, all this suffering-preparation, of course.
In small ways we choose to die to our own whims and wants, setting our sights on the deeper growth that comes from drawing further from our fears and nearer to God.
As with our own short lives, we know that death lies at the end of this liturgical journey, too. There it is on the calendar, Good Friday in all its starkness: church stripped bare, silence echoing in an empty tabernacle.
But beyond this loss lies a truth equally baffling to comprehend: an Easter reversal of everything we thought we knew, a game-changer of existential expectation, a flip-side resurrection of death itself.
Every day we are walking towards Friday’s death-as-we-fear-it. But we also edge towards Sunday’s life-as-we-dare-to-dream-it.
And children are a part of this journey, too.
This is my favorite part of Ash Wednesday. That for once we don’t banish babies to the nursery or preschoolers to the Sunday School classroom. We all walk up together, regardless of age or status, and someone smears dark grey ash on every forehead and tells us that from dust we have come and to dust we will return.
Every tiny curl of a newborn, every wide-eyed toddler, every curious kindergartner – their mortality stares us smack in the face, too. Tiny crosses of truth on softest skin.
Maybe this is part of Lent’s gift. Reminding us that these beautiful beginnings of youth are part of our shared journey toward death.
Be not afraid.
. . .
I started this post several weeks ago and haven’t known how to finish it.
Because there isn’t an easy ending, of course. There are no pat answers when it comes to talking about death. So many of the rote responses and tired clichés we use to wrestle our arms around such a vast and thorny subject are just that – rote and tired.
Theologically unsound, pastorally maddening.
As in so many dark corners of this strange land called motherhood, I find myself flinging wide my arms and releasing my fears, partly in hope, partly in despair.
I do not have the answers, and the questions will only become more complicated.
All I am learning to do is letting my babies go, day by day, into the arms of God who is love.
We went to church on Saturday evening instead of our usual Sunday morning. The promise of good gardening weather and the weekend’s plans all pushed us towards the deviation from the norm.
But the boys were even squirrelier than usual, wrestling out of our arms, racing towards the altar steps, squawking during the consecration. One innocently inquired after communion whether there would still be church donuts since it was Saturday, and I seethed through clenched teeth that No One Was Behaving Well Enough For A Donut So It Didn’t Matter Anyway.
So Sunday morning found me instead at the park with the boys, whom I soaked up like perfect angels in the bright sun, cringing at my own Mass-time behavior of the night before. We laughed on the slides and ran down to the river and chased each other on the playground paths.
Which is when I noticed: we weren’t alone.
The park was full of families enjoying the clear June day – biking, fishing, walking, jogging. I’ve never seen our favorite haunt so crowded. But it made perfect sense: Sunday can feel like a Sabbath moment whether you go to church or not. A time to pause and play together before the busyness of another week begins.
I have a new piece at Practicing Families on the struggles of Sunday services with little ones, so I’ve been pondering questions of church and family lately:
Each Sunday I eventually discover that I’m grateful we’re there, again. Even when we’ve flunked the Time Trials, botched the Nursery Negotiations, caved on the Bribery Battles, and stand ready to lose the Donut Debate, I still find that God finds us there.
Some small moment arises – a line from the priest’s homily, a stranger’s smile at the sign of peace, a favorite song that makes my boys clap their hands – and I fall in love with church all over again.
It’s good to be here, even when it’s hard to be here.
Click here to read more about our Sunday Morning Fight Club…
Weekends like this one, I start to wonder if the park was the place for us to find God and celebrate together as a family.
But I also know that when my kids grabbed each other’s hands to say grace at dinner tonight, I remembered how they had grinned at each other for the Sign of Peace at Mass on Saturday – how they kept shaking each other’s hands and wouldn’t let go, how their happiness was contagious and made even the most curmudgeonly adults around them (ahem) stop and smile.
Church has a grip on me like that, too. I want to be there, even when it’s hard to be there.
How do you choose to spend your Sundays as a family? What brings you the most joy together?
We were gathered around the table in our parish’s fellowship hall, and the boys were ready to tear into their donuts: the long-awaited, long-promised bribery for behaving themselves decently at Mass.
When it hit me: we could do something more here. Everyone finally quiet and happy? Ready to feed our rumbling tummies? Together at last after another morning of trading off the toddler?
It was a perfect moment to seize.
“Hey,” I began, my own mouth full of cinnamon sugar. “While we’re eating our donuts, let’s each say one thing we liked about church today.”
My husband’s eyebrows went up. I shrugged and mouthed why not?
To my surprise, our oldest jumped in immediately. “I liked the drumming. And I REALLY liked when that baby got dunked!”
I laughed. Me, too.
We went around the circle. The youngest declared he liked donut. (Big surprise.) The adults agreed they liked the music, since they both missed the homily. (Big surprise.)
Instead of scarfing down our treats and hustling to the car, we lingered for a change. And thanks to the beauty of baked goods, I actually got my family to participate in one of the forced “what did you do today?” conversations I futilely try to inflict over dinner.
It made me realize that the simplest changes are often the best. Take what works and try it in a new light. The brilliance of parenting hacks.
. . .
We all have hints and helps we learn along the way to make life easier. Even now when I have no time to read a cereal box, let alone an entire magazine, I still tear open Parents to read the monthly “It Worked For Me!” round-up of clever tips from crafty parents. I love these handy hacks, and I’d love to hear yours.
What “hacks of faith” do you use with little ones at church? Not only to keep kids quiet, but to keep them engaged.
A hack is by definition an inelegant yet creative solution, and I can think of a handful I’ve learned from friends along the years to make our faith life infinitely easier with the under-5 crowd:
- Sit in the front. If you slip in the back, it’s all too tempting to slip out. Kids can’t see a thing if they’re staring at adult backsides. But in the front pews, there’s always action to grab their attention. It doesn’t work all the time, and we often end up walking the youngest out anyway. But it works enough to make me muster confidence to walk all the way down the aisle even when we’re rolling in at the Alleluia. Kids love to be front and center to see what’s going on.
- Stack the deck. My youngest boy’s godmother made the coolest holy-cards-on-a-key-ring toy for her son, and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to copy it. I am not crafty in the least, but this clever project took me about 5 minutes and cost about $5. Perfect. I get tired of trying to listen to the Gospel and whisper-read books about farm animals, so I figure if the church toys offer at least a couple connections to what’s going on around us, it’s better for all of us.
- Make your own. The best busy book I’ve come up with for church is one I made myself. (I repeat, folks: if my un-Pinterest-worthy self can hack it, so can you.) I took a bunch of pictures around our parish one Sunday after Mass and stuck them in a small photo album. (A top ten Target purchase of my life, for all it’s bought me in return.) It’s a great tool to help toddlers point and name what they see. And a picture of a statue, a stained glass window, or a station of the cross offers plenty of possibilities for going deeper with preschoolers. Over the years I’ve added photos from both boys’ baptisms so we could remember them whenever a baby gets baptized at Mass. I’ve also slowly taken pictures of how the church looks in each liturgical season so that we can talk about the colors and environment change. Easy as pie. (Or church donuts.)
They’re hacks, not perfect solutions to be sure. (Ain’t much elegant about wrangling squirmy boys in the front pew, I’ll tell you that much.) But more often than not, they work.
And I am all about helping things work.
What clever tricks are hiding up your sleeves? Let’s share some ideas for sanity next Sunday!
How I heard Palm Sunday:
When the hour came, Jesus took his place at table with the apostles.
Mama, I need Polar Bear. Read Polar Bear. Read. Please.
I tell you, Peter. Before the cock crows this day, you will deny three times that you know me.
Polar Bear, Polar Bear, what do you hear? I hear a lion roaring in my ear.
Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still not my will but yours be done.
Big Trucks and Diggers! I need Big Trucks and Diggers!
They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied to them, “You say that I am.”
The wheel loader scoops and lifts and loads – oops, no, don’t pull the pages too hard or the dump truck part will break.
But they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Can you use your quiet voice in church? Shhh…no. Quiet. We use quiet voices while we’re listening.
Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.
Mama, do they have donuts today? Should we go check to see if there are donuts?
Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Shhh. Use your QUIET VOICE IN CHURCH. If you cannot use your quiet voice, you are going to have to leave aga – ok, that’s it. You’re leaving. Here, take him.
And when he had said this, he breathed his last.
Mama, home. Let’s go home. I’m hungry. I’m tired. Home.
. . .
A mother’s distraction? Maybe.
But aren’t all our hearings of the Gospel interrupted?
We pick up the book after making the coffee and before loading the dishwasher. We squeeze in church between breakfast and a birthday party. We listen to a sermon while plotting our to-do list and planning our errands.
We are always humans trying to hear the divine, listening with half an ear amidst all the chatter and clutter. We are never gods ourselves, with undisturbed attention, uninterrupted time, undistracted minds. We are creatures of distraction, people of interruption.
But might this be precisely the point?
Incarnation was interruption: God breaking into our world, becoming human. Resurrection was a wrench-in-the-works of reality, too: death becoming life, transformed and brand-new.
The Gospel was always meant to interrupt us. To interrupt injustice with truth. To interrupt guilt with forgiveness. To interrupt violence with peace. To interrupt ambition with humility. To interrupt selfishness with love.
No wonder it still interrupts today. Even this holiest of weeks is still full of work deadlines and school drop-offs and vacuuming and vet visits.
And the little ones can’t sit silent for the sacred mystery of holy days. They still fidget and squirm, whine and yawn. (So do adults sometimes, if we’re honest.)
Proof of all the human he came to save.
. . .
In case you missed it, I’m now a contributor at CatholicMom.com. Click here to check out my first post on how to live Lent as a busy mom.
May you have a peaceful, prayerful Holy Week! (Amidst the chaos and craziness of daily life, of course.)
For over a week, half a post for Ash Wednesday sat waiting for me to finish it. And it started like this:
Anyone else feel like the gentle green of Ordinary Time just got yanked out from under their feet, and now they’re sitting plop in the purple of Lent, scratching their head and wondering how we got here so fast?
Is it even allowed to be Mardi Gras before Valentine’s Day?
Or am I the only anxious one who still has Christmas thank-yous on her to-do list?
From whence it wandered into ramblings about how maybe the fact that the dates for Easter and Lent change every year keeps us on our toes, on edge even, makes us more mindful or less likely to lull into complacency.
Which bumped into Scriptural allusions about how you know neither the day nor the hour.
(Which was apparently going to wrap back round to parenting or family life or something else that this blog claims to be about.)
But then we all woke up to the papal game-changer of the century (or rather, six centuries) and the looming start of Lent seemed even more surprising as we all sat around puzzling and pontificating (ha) about how we could possibly have a new pontiff by the time these forty days finished.
So now what are we supposed to do, I wondered. I thought about scrapping this post completely. But then it struck me that if this news is the Hayley’s Comet of ex cathedra announcements, I better scrape together two words about an all-points-bulletin Catholic news story that will surely never come again in my lifetime.
And that was precisely when it hit me:
Perhaps the early Ash Wednesday and the unexpected announcement from Benedict aren’t so far apart after all.
Both remind us of mortality, a sobering reminder that we are all dust and to dust we shall return.
Both mark the beginning of a time of great change, a season of renewal.
Both capture the popular imagination in surprising ways.
Ever try to find a parking spot at an Ash Wednesday service five minutes before it starts? Good luck. Catholic churches are crammed on this unofficial holy day. Every year I notice more and more people packed into the pews. Something about this simple penitential practice, this smear of ash on foreheads, touches us deeply.
Ditto Benedict’s decision. Sure, yesterday was full of ignorant chatter and conspiracy theories and snarky Catholic jokes. But it was also full of surprising resonance, of reporters and religion professors and regular church-goers agreeing that resignation could be wise, that retirement could be well-deserved, that respect was due to a powerful leader who knew when to step down, when to take leave of a calling that was ending.
It’s the eve of ashes, and it all feels surprising. But it’s always jarring when death interrupts life, isn’t it? When reminders of mortality upend our neatly planned calendars of The Way Things Are Supposed to Go?
Weren’t we were just waving our palms to welcome him in? Are they really so quickly burned to ash again?