The National Catholic Review
Gallaudet Howard

I sit at lessons and carols for the second time, listening to St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation while a baby kicks and swims inside me. The church is candlelit and hushed, fragrant with pine boughs, nothing like the small, hot room where a Middle Eastern Jewish teenager learned from an angel that if she said yes, she would have God’s baby. My back aches. My 2-year-old son wiggles and drops his Thomas the Tank Engine on the pew with a thundering crash.

It is good to hear the account of Mary’s yes as I contend with the whole absurd and awkward process of pregnancy. Mary reminds me that for these nine months I am privileged to experience what the Anglican prayer book calls these holy mysteries within my own body. Bearing life during Advent brings home to me inescapably that the holy has a penchant for expressing itself physically and that, once allowed in, mystery will change my very being in painful and exhilarating ways.

My personal Advent mystery started physically, of course; the most ordinary, everyday act, messy and inconvenient and full of a unifying love. This half-asleep, parents-of-a-toddler sex, however, enabled an eternal soul to come forth. In the way of many holy things, he arrived shrouded in such secrecy that for 10 days not even I knew that my life had already changed. Then there was the moment with the test: the pink lines, the strange joy and the knowledge that life as I had organized it was over. Someone else’s life was splitting mine open to make room for it. Someone else’s growth was demanding that I relinquish control of my moods, my energy, my prized waistline so it could flourish. The literal depths of my being were asking me to say, with Mary, Fiat mihi.

I don’t like saying that. I have plans, agendas, many things I love to dowrite, travel, practice medicine, linger late over dinner with my husbandwhich don’t involve saying, Be it done unto me according to God’s word. After those moments with the angel Gabriel, Mary became theotokos, the god-bearer, and what happened? Not trumpets, not adulation, not triumph. She lost her place in societyat least until her fiancé began having dreams that told him to keep her as a wife. She lost her home; they had to go trekking off to Bethlehem, then Egypton a donkey no less. She lost every semblance of a traditional birthher mother wasn’t there, but her husband was.

And yet, heavily pregnant during Advent, I find this litany of smashed expectation and apparent disaster oddly reassuring. My career may be on hiatus, my time sucked up by a vacuum of shopping and chores, my energy reassigned to the ever-growing child inside me, but the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Nativity tell me that it is acceptablemore, it is requiredfor me to lose control of my life. New life always comes forth in the midst of the mundane and chaotic.

When I can raise my head from the minutiae of pregnancy (Why are maternity pants always polyester? Why is even my face fat?) and focus on the reality of what is actually occurring (children, made in the image of God, made inside me), I realize that my own experience is not the point. Only the ultimate outcome, only the full working-out of God’s mystery within me, matters.

I am grateful that the chronicles of Mary’s pregnancy make clear how difficult the experience of pregnancy and birth really is. To carry a child is to be mired in the physical in the most prosaic ways. I am fatigued beyond reason; my moods are unrecognizable even to me: my appetites for everythingfood, sex, sleepbecome voracious, capricious and gracelessly overt. I am hard-pressed just to be polite, let alone kind, to the people I love; and I am embarrassingly apt to weep. I can manage, of course, and I do. I write, raise my child, sit up at night paying bills. But it costs me, and it is difficult daily, even hourly. This is my second child, so I know how it will end: with hours of danger and pain, followed by months of exhaustion. At times the intensity of my experience, the simultaneous presence of Eros and Thanatos in my own body, overwhelms me.

Mary’s voice in Advent sings of transformation, of power lost and gained in strange ways, and of a brave gratitude that encourages me as I unpack groceries or scramble an egg for my son. (Mama, fire egg! he demands.) Being pregnant brings home to me the day-by-day, exhausting, long-term nature of transformation and of the holy’s manifestation in my life. I read the Scripture, and I fail, daily, to enact it with my own flesh. I snap at my husband, ignore a neighbor’s silent pleas for sympathy, go about sunk in my own body and concerns.

But all the time, flesh grows within my flesh, and life flourishes (kicking uncomfortably at my liver) within my life. All the time, my own body and Mary’s words testify to the amazing reality of Advent: that once, in history, the Word did become flesh and dwelt among us.

Gallaudet Howard is a nurse practitioner and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She currently lives with her husband and son in Iowa City.