Twice now I have had the good fortune to be pregnant during Advent. All of the gospel readings come alive in a special way for me. For instance, both times, the Sunday that we read the Visitation gospel, I happened to be six months pregnant—exactly the same as Elizabeth. As Elizabeth tells Mary that the babe in her womb leapt for joy, I got to enjoy a similar, albeit non-miraculous, sensation as my little unborn daughter danced around inside of me. Being pregnant, and keenly aware of the bodily changes that happen at each stage, I was able to appreciate the huge sacrifice Mary made in visiting her cousin for three months, meaning that she was traveling and helping Elizabeth during her own first trimester, when women experience the most fatigue, morning sickness, and food aversions of the entire pregnancy. I also realized that Mary probably had a bit of a baby bump when she got home—giving Joseph quite the unexpected start, to be sure. And of course, the Madonna and Child imagery surrounding that time of year is even more precious when you are also expecting.
But parenting can give you more than simply a personal appreciation for the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth and childhood. While being a parent is just a typical reality that most people encounter, it is also one of the most extraordinary religious experiences that we can have. Ordinary, unremarkable parenting moments truly offer a deeper relationship with God.
The first time I became a parent, I found myself reflecting often on God the Father. As a parent, I could meditate on the ways in which my husband and I imperfectly mirrored the parental role of God. For instance, I remember once sitting on the floor outside my daughter’s room at night, listening to her cry and trying not to cry myself. I had been in there dozens of times already, and I knew that going in to pick her up was not going to help her fall asleep, and sleep was what she needed. It made me think about “unanswered” prayers. We are often in the role of the crying baby: we beg God to pay attention to us, because of some deeply felt want. It hurts to feel the silence when God does not come rushing to our aid and give us what we ask for. But, sitting outside her room, I imagined God the Father “sitting outside” our rooms, listening, deeply acknowledging our grief, but knowing that what we want and what we need are not the same. God’s silence is not his absence, but his wisdom.
It is incredibly intimidating to realize that, as parents, we are called to participate in Divine Wisdom. It is intimidating because the stakes are so high—our children’s souls—and yet we are so fallible and unwise. Who is like God? Definitely not me. But that is the radical spiritual calling of parents: to be created in the image of God in order to humbly, haltingly, and imperfectly model the paternal wisdom of God the Father.
The second time I became pregnant, I had a somewhat more dramatic encounter with God’s calling for parents. On Christmas Eve, two months before it should have, my water broke. While millions of Christians spent Christmas morning celebrating the birth of God’s Son, I spent the day crying in a delivery room, hoping and praying that a birth would not happen yet. Confined to bed rest in the hospital to delay labor, I found myself thinking of the agony in the garden, trying to mean it when I prayed that not my will but God’s be done. I was scared about potential complications. I was terrified at the unknowns that come along with a premature birth. I was lonely in the times when family could not be there. It was comforting to meditate on the fact that Christ, the perfect sacrificial victim, did not joyfully anticipate his appointed suffering.
My experience was ordinary and not spectacular, but it is in the everyday that parents can encounter God. With my first daughter, I could joyfully meditate on the wisdom and power of God and his nurturing relationship with us, his children. Now, I had the opportunity to connect my ordinary suffering to that of Christ’s extraordinary powerlessness on the cross and sacrificial kenosis, or self-emptying. Maybe other mothers would agree with me that natural labor is rather empowering: you feel very much a part of the process, a co-partner with God in the act of creating and bringing forth life. For me, a C-section was quite different: I felt emptied, passive. Delivering a preemie can also feel deflating—rather than experiencing the joy of holding your baby seconds after delivery, you catch a quick glimpse of her before she is scurried away for oxygen support and you are left with empty and aching arms.
This emptying of self is another part of the ordinary, extraordinary calling of all parents. Our children might recognize our power more often than our sacrifice, but we are called to model in our everyday, unremarkable lives the same sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. Christ became the passive, sacrificial victim so that we might live. It is hard to live up to that, but that is the radical calling of parents. In today’s world, we are encouraged to do the opposite. In China, for instance, officials are confused as to why the gradual relaxation of the one-child policy has not resulted in more children, but it is because would-be parents have since been trained to put themselves first, and a child gets in the way of their plans. Here in the West, women are encouraged to freeze their eggs, with the pernicious attitude that after we’ve had all the time we could want to spend only on ourselves, we can then produce one or two babies like the cherry on top of a successful career. The modern world senses the reality that parenting is a radical taking up of one’s cross, and so they flee from it.
Most of us will never be called upon to do something that would light up the pages of a gripping hagiography. Most of us will never be called upon to do anything outside of the ordinary. But all parents are called to live the extraordinary in the ordinary and be made more and more in the image of God.
If this Trinitarian trend holds, I’m expecting my third child to bring some interesting encounters with the Holy Spirit…
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Premières Caresse” painted by William Adolphe Bouguereau in 1901.