I love Christmas, especially in New England because everyone gets into it. Decorations and lights adorn almost every home and the atmosphere feels festive from Thanksgiving forward. The holiday season boosts our spirits in a way that distracts us from the hard reality that winter is coming. There is no doubt that it will be cold, dark and long. But this year I am stuck between feeling joy and sadness as the 25th approaches. I have joy in celebrating this first Christmas with our son but sadness in thinking about those who are no longer here. My family has had to say goodbye to two grandmothers and some of our friends have tragically lost sisters, mothers and grandmothers. I think about how my grandmother’s easy laughter will be missing when we gather this year and how she never was able to meet Hans. It hurts knowing that she wont be there. I think about the pain my friends can’t escape as they experience a first Christmas without those whom have been ripped from their lives.
With this in mind, I think of Mary. During Advent, she is permanently displayed as the young mother dotting over her beautiful baby boy, full of hope, joy, peace and love. This is how I thought of her last year as I experienced the birth of my first child. Because the birth of Jesus is memorialized everywhere during this time of year it is hard to think of him growing older. Even though I have pictures just moments after Hans was born, that time becomes more and more of a blur as I daily create new memories with him. It is hard to recollect what he looked like in those early days. The life that I get to share each day with my son as he grows overshadows those first moments after he was born. I cherish his surprise kisses, his squeals of laughter, whenever he says momma whether happy or sad, the way he holds my hand and lays his head on my chest when he is sleepy. I think about Mary and how she must have made similar memories with her own child.
The Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?” focuses on the miraculous things that Jesus will do like walking on water, calming storms and giving sight to the blind. But it fails to mention how it will end, with her watching him tragically die. Did Mary know that this was going to happen? The Gospels quickly jump from Jesus’ death to the resurrection leaving out the immense pain that Mary experienced. Only silence. There is no account of Jesus even appearing to his mother. If he did, what words were exchanged? Was she able to embrace him and to believe that he really was alive? Or was she in denial and the hope too painful to comprehend? Would Mary have done things differently if she had known how their lives would unfold? Would she have loved him more or less? In my own season of grief, I want more of Mary’s story.
In the midst of wrestling through my thoughts, I was reminded of a conversation between two friends in Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, where one of the characters is grieving over the recent loss of a son:
Thinking to try to comfort him, I said, “Well, along with all else, there’s goodness and beauty too. I guess that’s the mercy of the world.” Mat said, “The mercy of the world is you don’t know what’s going to happen.” And then after a pause, speaking on in the same dry, level voice as before, he told me why he had been up walking about so late. He had had a dream. In the dream he had seen Virgil as he had been when he was about five years old: a pretty little boy who hadn’t yet thought of anything he would rather do than follow Matt around at work. He looked as real, as much himself, as if the dream were not a dream. But in the dream Mat knew everything that was to come. He told me this in a voice as steady and even as if it were only another day’s news, and then he said, “All I could do was hug him and cry.”
If we knew how much time we would have with our loved ones, would we live differently? Would we love harder or love less? Maybe it is a mercy that we don’t know the future. With each new loss of life a new life is gained. Therefore, as I get older, I realize how impossible it is to separate joy from grief for life and death are always intertwined. Which is why this Christmas I see Mary both as a joyous new mom and also as a grieving mother who has had to bury her son.