When Mary and Joseph found themselves expecting a baby, they had one thing in common with modern families: They knew whether they were awaiting a boy or a girl and had a name already.
That comparison may seem frivolous, but contemplating the holy family during its expectancy is important. In the months between the annunciation and the incarnation, Mary was doing important work with Joseph alongside her. Mary’s assent to God’s intent for her is unique, but all expecting women take up a remarkable collaboration with God’s creation.
A pregnant woman is collaborating with God in the making of a new person. Two parts of that truth deserve explaining. First, the woman is doing something: She is not passive. Before biology made common knowledge the hidden workings of the body, pregnancy tended to seem like not doing much, passively waiting. Even now, maternity patients may still feel as technology and medical expertise are doing most of the work. However, the woman plays an important role in her pregnancy.
This leads to the second point: The woman is sharing labor with God. By offering her yes to pregnancy, a woman gives conscious and active participation in a divine project. As her body holds a developing human never yet met in the universe, a woman not only affirms that specific work of God but also is present to God’s creation in a distinctive way. In recognizing the weakness of one’s own body—which cracks, creaks, stretches, and bleeds—and the need for grace, a woman joins in the restoring of creation. Strengthening one’s body in order to help build up the body of another strikes against selfishness and spoliation.
That body-in-a-body radiates God’s care for creation, the ongoing blessing of creatures made in God’s own image. You shouldn’t gawk; politeness demands some privacy. But if you’re not blown away by the sight of a person with a baby bump walking by, you are missing something big. The usual responses to somebody else’s pregnancy—naming its normalcy or its discomforts—skip the most needful reaction: awe. It’s not enough to rethink pregnancy as active rather than passive. Pregnancy is at once active and contemplative. For nine months someone’s whole self is enclosed inside a person aware that this is happening.
This is a stunning way to live out embodiment. Science can be the helpmeet of praise. As we have learned more about maternal physiology and fetal development, we may marvel more. To show reverence for what one’s own body does in its nurture is to honor God. Our astonishment becomes our praise.
It’s not enough to rethink pregnancy as active rather than passive.
Knowing more, women are asked to do more. Prenatal care and what-to-expect books assign many tasks on behalf of the baby-to-be. Women are told to take vitamins, make doctor visits, abstain from alcohol, eat scrupulously, sleep on their left side, avoid household chemicals, and sometimes even change jobs or take full bedrest. The fetus takes from maternal stores what the fetus needs. But women’s conscious efforts to nurture a fetus transform the giving.
Prenatal carefulness aims at offering one’s best to the coming child. The fetus is not just taking maternal stuff—stocks of calcium or iron—but is receiving maternal gifts. By loving the stranger hidden in her belly, the woman practices loving her neighbor as herself.
Pregnancy practices loving one’s neighbor in a thousand practical ways. When a pregnant woman chooses some foods and refuses others, or when she dresses or moves differently, she is taking care not mostly for her benefit but for another’s. She may suffer nausea, heartburn, dizziness, swelling, or sometimes graver dangers in order to protect someone else. Serving one person in utero can make her more sensitive to the needs of others and adept at serving them. Moved to shape her own actions in deference to someone else’s need, a pregnant woman finds her own good as inseparably braided up with the other’s good.
This may seem obvious in the case of a pregnant woman and a fetus. But whether we see it or not, it is true for the rest of us too. Pregnancy is an instruction in our responsibility to one another. It should startle us into admiration first and imitation second. The work a woman does on behalf of the coming child extends outward. New humans coming into the world do not come only to their parents but also to wider communities. Unto us a child is born. The mother-to-be assists God in bringing this astonishing creature to us.
Pregnancy is an instruction in our responsibility to one another.
We have a responsibility to the one who bears that responsibility. As a mother-to-be takes care of another, those around her can reciprocate. The visitation, when Mary visited Elizabeth before Jesus’ birth, might lead us in the right way.
Artists’ renderings of the visitation show Mary and Elizabeth greeting each other in shared amazement. Sometimes pictures place Elizabeth in homage, kneeling or stooping from age or veneration. Sometimes Mary and Elizabeth are pictured touching each other’s bellies (a gesture perhaps permissible to fellow pregnant women but to few others). The hand on belly signals at who is inside. It also affirms one’s concern for the child of another. In some paintings the two women look directly at each other, right in the eyes. This shared awareness is a mutual gift: I understand, I know what you are in.
With their extraordinary pregnancies, these two women share a singular understanding. But women who are mothers more ordinarily still may aid one another. One pregnant woman may know specially well how to embrace another, to encourage her receipt of this gift and the sword-piercing truth of it.
Considering the holy family as they await the birth of Jesus shows the importance of the care humans extend each other, but it also illustrates its limits. Neither Mary nor Joseph can provide or protect as they would like. Jesus lain in a manger proclaims what is true for many women and children. The crudeness of the stable underscores the hospitality of pregnancy. The child’s warm, protected residence in the mother’s body may be safer and more comfortable shelter than some children will ever inhabit in the world outside the womb. We can do our best. We can give our children bread and not stones. But at base we present our children to the protection of God, who brought us into the presence of their creation and who told Joseph in a dream what to do.
This article also appears in the January issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 1, pages 24-25). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pixabay/Michael Gaida