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.
This door marker greeted me on retreat last weekend. A small but important sign that I was in a place of hospitality, a hallmark of the Benedictines and their spirituality.
I thought about hospitality often while I was on retreat. When I saw the generous plates of snacks set out at every break. When one of the sisters helped me navigate their breviary books for evening prayer. When I noticed the basket of toiletries at the bathroom sink with a note to help yourself if you’d forgotten anything at home.
Small gestures that convey a deeper embrace of the stranger as guest.
. . .
In his Rule for monastic orders, Saint Benedict writes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. I remember seeing these words engraved in stone near the Abbey Church at Saint John’s when I first started graduate studies at the School of Theology.
During the next three years of studying and then five years of working within a Benedictine community, I’ve learned plenty about hospitality from the brothers and sisters within the monasteries.
But whenever I think of how to welcome guests as Christ, I still think first of two mothers I’ve been blessed to know.
My mom. She turns down the sheets and blankets at night, inviting her guests to slip into bed. She arranges bouquets in bedrooms and tiny bud vases in bathrooms. She chooses favorite books and stuffed animals to line each grandchild’s bed. She sets Martha-Stewart-worthy centerpieces on the kitchen table and pulls out homemade soup and sandwich fixings to greet late-night travelers who drag in from the airport.
And if you arrive so late that you’re sure no one could possibly be waiting up for you (she still is), she’ll leave a candle glowing in the dark kitchen, just enough light to let you see the “WELCOME!!!” sign scrawled and circled on the refrigerator white board, exclamation points barely enough to contain her joy.
My mother-in-law. She fills the table with family, friends, neighbors and strangers. She invites anyone who doesn’t have a place to go for a holiday - seminary students from Nigeria, new neighbors from Egypt, families from Colombia, shirt-tail relatives from Canada - to join any gathering she’s throwing. She rearranges the dining room to make one long table so that everyone has a place. She makes sure every elderly relative goes home with a heaping Chinet plate of leftovers to reheat the next day.
Every time I’ve brought a friend home who’s received their welcome, I hear my own thoughts echoed in their comments as we pull out of the driveway – Your mom is honestly the nicest, most thoughtful person I’ve ever met. Does your mother-in-law seriously make a spread like that for every Sunday supper?
Clearly they each have the gift.
. . .
Sometimes I feel intimidated by their hospitality. Both these women have the charism for welcome: a gift given for the good of the community. If I don’t share the same instinct, should I just give up? My welcome of guests tends more towards worry – is our home too messy? is the guest room a disaster? will they be bored by our current life with littles that sets our family’s days?
But then I remind myself that both these women are expert homemakers. The honor of their life’s work has been deeply tied to the warm center of the home they created as a place of welcome, not just for their families but for any who cross their doorstep. Whether their hospitality first came by instinct or desire, they’ve honed the habits that became a practice that formed a way of life.
I imagine it’s the same for any Benedictine.
So perhaps here’s hope for me yet, and hopefully many more years in which to grow in learning what it means to embody a gracious reception of those who show up at my door. Christ in the face of friend or stranger.
Knowing each of these women well, I’m sure they’d scoff at any compliment of themselves as Christ-welcomers. But I suspect the secret they’ve learned is something like this: when you welcome a guest as Christ, you become like Christ yourself. Generous, compassionate, and loving.
The wider your welcome, the wider your heart.
. . .
Today is a Benedictine feast, the anniversary of Benedict’s death in 543. They’ll celebrate in true welcoming fashion at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s.
If it weren’t for the fact that I’ll be posting this today and my mom will surely blush when she reads it, I’d doubt that she or my husband’s mom would ever know this is a day that celebrates their life’s work as well.
But isn’t that the gift of those who open wide their door for guest or stranger? Teaching the rest of us how humility goes hand-in-hand with hospitality.
My kids have already picked up on this ancient Benedictine truth. They’re constantly asking when they get to visit their grandparents next. Because even if they can’t yet name it, they know how it feels to be welcomed as Christ.
Like your arrival is the long-awaited gift that everyone’s been looking for.
The Case of What Happened To My Birthday?
It hit me for the first time, on the eve of my 33rd trip around the sun, that it’s a pretty darn perfect metaphor for what I’ve learned in adulthood.
March 8th used to be All About Me. What’s a birthday other than your unique footprint upon the calendar? Everyone sends you cards, calls you on your special day, wishes you a wonderful celebration. You get to bask in the glow of 24 hours with you at the center: cake, cards, presents. Even the daily horoscope selects a personalized (yet simultaneously vague and laughable?) prediction for your next year.
I loved my birthday every year, gripped it tight with a happy grin. Mine.
Then, as fate would have it, I fell in love with another Pisces.
Another March 8th Pisces, to be precise.
And somewhere between my initial eye roll of disbelief, the driver’s license he produced as proof over dinner, and the eleven years since? The day ceased to be mine forever.
March 8th became our birthday, still a strange stumble of pronoun off my tongue. Like another anniversary or Valentine’s Day (except we always find a restaurant that offers free meals or desserts, much to the waiter’s double chagrin). A shared celebration.
No longer mine but ours.
Of course that’s what marriage is about, cue the clichés. But I truly never thought I would have to bake my own birthday cake every other year. I never thought I’d field birthday calls for us both. Or open birthday cards addressed to two.
Google can’t tell me the odds of sharing an exact birthday and birth year with your spouse, but I’d bet it’s slim. So the one day that was rightly my own on the calendar? (Aside from some fleeting thought that statistically, of course, I surely shared the natal date with millions of others.)
Now it belongs to us.
Then another funny twist happened.
Ever since our first baby was born, and the story and details and life-changing milestone of his birth day were forever seared on my brain, I started seeing birthdays differently.
Suddenly they were about the mothers, too.
The ones who stand smiling in the background while the child bends over the cake to blow out candles. The ones who were always missing from the photos because they were behind the camera every year. The ones whom nature made the necessary half of the equation that produced a birthday.
The ones who birthed.
Strange as it sounds, ever since I became a parent I always think of people’s mothers when I wish them a “Happy Birthday.” I think of the women who couldn’t forget this date, either, even if they are no longer in their child’s life. Because they labored and sweated and suffered on that day to bring a baby into the world.
And the body and soul don’t soon forget that sacrifice of love.
So today I’ll roll over and wish my husband a Happy Birthday. He’ll smile and do the same.
Later on we’ll talk to our mothers, I’m sure. They’ve taken to calling each other, too, exchanging congratulations for a job well done years ago. And we’ll share birthday cake with our sons (who still don’t understand how their parents aren’t twins).
All in all it’s a darn-near perfect picture for what I’m learning about this life. That’s it’s not about me or even us. It’s about them.
The ones whose love brought us here. And the ones brought here by our love.
It’s their day, too.
God of Ash Wednesday, whose hands first gathered dust to create us, whose Spirit breathed new life into brittle bones, whose fingers traced the sand to save a sinner, take the dirt of my life - the tempers lost, the doors slammed, the complaints muttered, the harsh words thrown, the dark doubts seethed - take all these flaws and failings and burn them blazing in the fire of forgiveness. Gather the dust that lingers, the ashes streaked across your healing hands, and trace the ancient cross once again across my forehead. Press its humbling love deep into my mind and heart, let it sink into my soul reminding me that life is fleeting as the dark grey dust. And when I see the same stark sign of sin and death marked on the soft faces of my children, let me breathe in the beauty of now, this present we have together, this gift of a life shared no matter how dark or dry it sometimes seems. Let the touch of another's hand on my bowed head remind me of resurrection, of hope and promise that we are mere dust and yet more - beloved in your eyes, our chins cupped in your hands with a parent's loving touch, our faces traced by the same fingers that forever bear the prints of every ashen life they touch. Amen.