A friend of mine asked a simple question on her Facebook page, “When do you take your Christmas lights down?” Some people insisted on waiting until the Feast of the Presentation (February 2), others until Epiphany, and others, “Until I can’t stand to have them up anymore!” (One of our first years of marriage, we fell into the most relaxed of categories, “Shoot! Ash Wednesday is tomorrow! We better put this stuff away!”)
But her question calls to mind a different conversation I had recently, with a seminarian friend. He shared how he and our priest friend were once giving a retreat for families after Christmas and, “Father’s whole homily was on breastfeeding!” Intrigued, I turned to my priest friend (a kind, Italian man) and asked him what the story behind that homily was.
“It was the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and I thought, ‘What was Mary doing eight days after giving birth? She was feeding the baby!” He went on to explain a beautiful theological reflection on us coming to Mary for nourishment, too. It was that initial comment that stood out to me, though.
Christmas is an all too fleeting season. Already, it is done for this liturgical year. What are we left with in the time between the Baptism of the Lord and the Presentation? We’re left with Mary, feeding the baby.
I recently came across an article talking about Our Lady of La Leche, and was reminded of how much I love Mary under that title. Thankfully, I have been able to breastfeed my babies, so I relate to the images of Our Lady of La Leche from that perspective. But even mothers who are unable to breastfeed can relate to these images. Whether you breastfeed or bottlefeed, every mother is familiar with the Focused Feeder vs. the Conversational Eater vs. the Twisting Tot vs. Oh-my-goodness-child-just-eat-already!
When you take that to prayer you realize how amazing it was that Mary and Jesus were such an ordinary mother and baby, doing ordinary things. Jesus was an ordinary baby, and he did ordinary baby things. Most of Jesus’s life, actually, was hidden and ordinary.
Anyone who has ever had a newborn knows how crazy those first forty days after birth are. The poor baby has no idea what he or she is doing. The poor parents have no idea what they’re doing. It’s exhausting and beautiful and filled with basic, ordinary activity. The diapers — those endless diapers! — are changed. The baby feeds and tries to feed and spits everything up. Sleep is snatched wherever it can be found.
Then, right around forty days postpartum, the family begins to emerge from the fog of the newborn days. They begin to get used to each other, to their new pattern of life. The proud parents, who have been pouring themselves out for their tiny child, are ready to show their little one off to the world. After all, every parent believes their child to be the cutest and the sweetest infant ever.
I remember praying a lot with the fourth Joyful Mystery of the rosary after having my first baby. In my insecurity as a new mother (mixed with actual post-partum depression), I needed the affirmation that the work I was pouring into my precious baby mattered. When she was baptized, it all seemed worth it. It was with joy that my husband and I carried our beautiful daughter into the church and saw her embraced and adored by the body of Christ. On the one hand, there was the ordinary pleasure of seeing her fawned over (because, after all, she was a very cute baby). On the other hand, there was a reminder that this child, this beautiful child of ours, was not ours. Ultimately, she belonged to God.
Mary is, of course, holier than I. I’m sure that, even in the haze of new motherhood, she didn’t lose sight of who Jesus was. I’m sure that, as much as she fell in love with him as her baby, she also always held in sight that he was also the Son of God, meant for all of humanity. (I’m reminded of this beautiful scene from The Nativity Story, starting at 1:06.) Even so, the Presentation in the Temple must have served as a powerful reminder of who her baby was (which is evidenced by the fact that we are reminded, again and again in the Gospels, how Mary “pondered these things in her heart”).
And even in the story of the Presentation in the Temple, we see the ordinary woven seamlessly with the extraordinary. Mary was, most likely, purified (as was the post-partum custom). She and Joseph came to present her firstborn son, and to offer the customary sacrifice for him. No doubt the endless stream of sleeping and wailing newborn boys was met with indulgent smiles by all in the Temple, a reminder of God’s ongoing promise of fruitfulness to his people. There must have been such a simple joy in that ordinary experience, mingled with Mary and Joseph’s awareness that this child was far from ordinary.
And then, the ordinary is shattered. “…and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There, wedged in Mary’s ordinary motherhood, was the cross. From the very beginning, there was the cross. It is no coincidence that the day after Christmas, we celebrate the feastday of the first martyr of the Church, St. Stephen. From the very beginning, the cross was a part of the story.
So it is, too, with us. There is no such thing as perfect parenthood. Being faced with suffering is not a sign of failure, but a sign of the cross. For so many parents, parenthood is filled with suffering of one kind or another – with the absence of extended family, with an ill child, with miscarriage, with post-partum or antenatal depression, or even with the ordinary struggles and exhaustion of parenthood.
Like Mary, the ordinary and the extraordinariness of the cross are inextricably joined in parenthood. So it is, too, with those in all stages of life. There is the ordinary, and there is real opportunity for holiness in that ordinary. Then, in the midst of our ordinary lives, we are met with the extraordinary – the cross. Suffering is not an extraordinary thing, but the cross is, because unlike ordinary suffering, the suffering of the cross is a suffering of love.
Like Mary, we are called to suffer in love. We are called to carry those crosses in love, in the midst of our ordinary lives. The little crosses, the big crosses, they are all opportunities to find God. They are all opportunities to be united to the truest, most perfect love that ever was.
image: 11th century folio depicting The Presentation in the Temple by Unknown illuminator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons