Once upon a time we had a barn in our backyard, a barn that featured an honest-to-goodness carriage stall, complete with manger. When we bought the house, it seemed like a bonus--we not only had a houses and a barn, we actually had a manger.
I'm no farm kid. There are no milking stools in my memory, no chicken coops, machine sheds, or outdoor privies, and no mangers. That I knew the word at all resulted from a couple thousand readings of Luke 2; after all, you can't stage the Bethlehem story, even in your imagination, without a manger. It would be interesting to know how little I was when I first tried to picture Jesus in a manger. Really, really young.
I'm 68 years old today, but it never dawned on me to think about Mary, a child herself, actually getting pregnant. The act?--sure. Who hasn't wondered what she felt when suddenly the Savior of the world was miraculously there within her? There are Catholic schools named "Immaculate Conception," after all--we used to play them in basketball.
But I don't know that I've ever given much thought to Mary, the virgin Mary, pregnant for nine long months. Did her ankles swell or her veins protrude? Was she sick a ton? Did she have to pee a lot? She probably didn't crave ice cream or tacos, but did she ever send Joseph out for a pickle?
Not until this week had I ever thought about actual gestation (can I even use that word when it comes to Christ?). Those who follow a strict liturgical calendar celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation just a few days ago, a prescribed holiday in the middle of Lent when celebrants rejoice at the news of Mary's pregnancy. In God for Us, Luci Shaw says the day comes as a shock to her because everything connected with Christ's birth seems winterized, "wreaths of holly, snow falling all around." Same with me. Somewhere in the word annunciation there has to be a manger.
But there isn't. In fact, it's almost spring, almost Easter, a strange time to think about shepherds abiding in the field suddenly gifted by a heavenly flash mob. It took me 68 years to consider a royal pregnancy, even though I probably built imaginary nativity scenes in my mind since I was three.
Why? Why did the Lord God almighty not just engineer some kind of polaroid pregnancy, let Mary off the hook. She was too young for stretch marks. Why make her carry the Savior for nine long months? Why not just spring him on the world?--which is what he did anyway. Why not bless Mary by forgoing all the stress that pregnant moms come heir to?
Nope. For all we know, Mary carried that child just like any other mother. I don't know that first century Galileans had mirrors, but you can bet she stopped to take a look at herself once in a while, measured her swelling, held her belly in her hands.
I just thought I'd bring all of that up. It seems so odd to think of it right now, Good Friday staring us down--and Easter just a few bright mornings away.
It's something of shock to consider the annunciation in late March, but something of a relief too, something to prompt a smile right before the darkness dead ahead.
My Dutch Calvinist ancestors would have whispered it, I'm sure. There was, after all, something unseemly about being pregnant since it implied. . .well, dare I say it?--sex. Probably after church sometime, a couple of women would break the news, privately, shielding the conversation from the children. "Mary. . .don't you know?--Mary, is in verwachting, in "the family way."
Polite grins, tenderly offered, all around.
There's not a manger in sight right now. Three crosses on the horizon, and somewhere just over the hill a load stone rolled away.
But Mary's with child. Amazing.