The line between life and death is razor-thin. Mothers know this all too well—mothers whose wombs miscarry, or fail to carry at all, for whom the promise of new life becomes the shadow of what could have been; mothers who keep watch through the night, agonizing over a child’s ragged breathing; mothers who try to shield precious little bodies against today’s threats of Zika, lead poisoning, and shooting in the streets.
This Easter, as I navigate my second child’s infancy in this world where life and death exist side by side, I am overwhelmed once again by the profound vulnerability of motherhood. As mothers, we give care, energy, and our very bodies to little people who will not be ours for long, who will leave us to lead lives that we could never imagine, who sometimes are taken from us long before we are ready to let them go.
It is often too much for our hearts to hold, as Mary, Jesus’ mother, knew so well. “A sword will pierce even your own soul,” old Simeon prophesied to her as she presented Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:35). Yet, from the beginning, Mary made herself present to the duality of joy and pain. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” she responded to the angel Gabriel’s announcement of her divine conception (Luke 1:38 NRSV). What enabled Mary to keep showing up with her whole self, first as she faced the social risks of having a child out of wedlock, and later, when realized that the child she bore was walking straight into His own execution?
As I meditate on her story this Easter, I find in Mary’s posture an invitation to us—not just mothers but all who labor with God to bring His new life into the world—to remain open and vulnerable in the all-too-present face of death.
From the beginning, Mary made herself present to the duality of joy and pain.
Mary’s story is absurd. A woman untouched by a man will give birth? The offspring of the Creator of the universe will sleep swaddled amidst hay intended for a stinking, braying mass of farm animals? God’s message to us is this: You will find new life in places where you least expect it. In your lowest, messiest, most desperate moments, something holy is happening. Like Mary, we are invited to believe God’s promises, that “there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45).
It’s one thing when events unfold as expected, but what about when all the circumstances say otherwise? I think of the mothers who watch helplessly as their children grow up and choose paths leading to death, not life. I think of Mary, staring at her son’s broken body on the cross. How did she make sense of this gruesome reality and God’s promise that her son would reign forever, and His kingdom would have no end?
A clue might be found in some of Mary’s responses early on in the gospel of Luke (chapters 1 and 2). When receiving the angel Gabriel’s announcement, she was perplexed, and mused, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). When the shepherds came to visit and pass on the words from the host of angels, Mary “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). And similar wording describes her reaction when she and Joseph found the boy Jesus at the temple conversing with the Jewish leaders (Luke 2:51).
This is what enabled Mary to receive God’s life into her body, to open herself up to loss and suffering, to walk with Jesus through His turbulent ministry all the way to the point of His death.
Perplexed. Treasured. Pondered. These words point to the deep and slow way Mary let the ridiculous, unbelievable, too-good-to-be-true truth of a God who is making all things new penetrate her being. In time, I think, Mary was able to anchor herself in this truth even when the surface reality seemed to negate it. She developed the ability to see the “deeper magic,” as C. S. Lewis describes in The Chronicles of Narnia, that is working its way through the fabric of our broken world to redeem all we thought was lost.
This is what enabled Mary to receive God’s life into her body, to open herself up to loss and suffering, to walk with Jesus through His turbulent ministry all the way to the point of His death. Even if she didn’t know exactly what would happen after her son died, Mary trusted that God’s power is made perfect in weakness; His strength is displayed in vulnerability. As Lauren Winner beautifully explains in Wearing God, interpreting Isaiah’s metaphor of God as a laboring woman (Isa. 42:14), “Strength is not about being in charge, or being independent, or being dignified. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, strength entails entrusting yourself … strength even entails giving yourself over to the possibility of death.”
My second child’s birth took place at home (as we planned) before the midwife could get here (not as we planned). The experience was terrifying. I sobbed and shivered uncontrollably in the birthing tub, willing my body not to burst open until trained help could arrive, but the baby came out anyway. As I brought his frail little body close to mine, terrified that he wouldn’t start breathing, all I could do was hang on and trust that Jesus, who has been through human life and death and ultimately came out alive, would carry me and my little one through. He did, and continues to do so.
It is scary to remain open to life when death circles all around. It is scary to entrust ourselves to a God who invites us to follow in His cruciform path. It is absolutely absurd to believe in the face of searing pain and irrevocable loss that new life will come. Yet it is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. This Easter, may we, with Mary, say “Here am I,” receiving God’s new life in places that we never thought possible.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory