We are in a season of Advent, where we are invited to embrace the posture of waiting. An oft-cited theological short-hand for this orientation, particularly within neo-Kuyperian circles, is “now and net yet.”
Advent is a microcosm of the human condition, as understood through a Christian lens. God is with us. And the fullness of redemption in God is yet to come. The sacred paradox reveals both are true. Mary’s immaculate conception, like Advent itself, is a now and a not yet.
TOWARDS AN ORIENTATION OF WITH-NESS
Mary gives witness to the physical embodiment of these truths: the unborn Christ in her womb is already here and recognized as divine God-child (Matthew 1:20-21). And yet, we eagerly await the birth of the Christ-child and mark this day as a sanctified remembrance of when, as one ancient hymn lyricizes: “Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ/For to redeem us all.”
Our society generally sees the conceiving, carrying, and birthing of a child as a deeply personal, and even bodily autonomous decision and experience. This article will specifically focus on the experience of motherhood as an analogy for the expectant spiritual state we are all in, as part of the human family, this side of the eschaton (1).
This article adopts a loosely Christian humanist perspective. According to Susannah Black in the recently released book Breaking Ground: Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year, Christian humanism recognizes that humans are “political animals. To be confined only to private life…is to be only half human. Set free by Christ, we should not act like slaves who are denied responsibility for the res publica, the public thing” (2).
A half a century ago, one polite euphemism for pregnancy was “with child.” This colloquialism sounds somewhat antiquated and arcane to my own millennial ears. But there is something to this linguistic turn of phrase – with child.
With encapsulates accompaniment, mutual dependence, acknowledgment of two humans necessarily with each other, body and soul (Psalm 139:13-14). This ‘with’ posturing has deep resonances, I think, for our current moment.
A year ago, we often saw in public discourse some variation of the question: “How can we reimagine a post-COVID-19 society?” There has since been a shift. An acknowledgment that we may not be living in a post-pandemic world anytime soon, if ever. Rather, we may be inhabiting the ambiguities of a with-COVID-19 world for years to come. Our conceptions of not only the virus – but the social structures of our lives – have fundamentally shifted. How will we live with each other, and with suffering, in a world that is in process? In the with-ness?
MOTHERHOOD AS PERSONAL AND PUBLIC OFFICE
Why focus on motherhood in this season of Advent? We see Mary, mother of the Christ-child, understanding that her role in bearing this baby was not a private act, but one that would have historical, public and cosmic reverberations throughout the ages.
“Motherhood is not merely an insular responsibility, but a public vocation with deep impacts and reverberances into every area of society.
One need not be Catholic to appreciate the words of John Paul II’s encyclical on Mary, Redemptoris Mater, which shed deeper light on the role of one lowly mother in bringing about Justice for the human family and the world:
We…turn in a special way to her, the one who in the ‘night’ of the Advent expectation began to shine like a true ‘Morning Star’ (Stella Matutina). For just as this star, together with the ‘dawn,’ precedes the rising of the sun, so Mary from the time of her Immaculate Conception preceded the coming of the Savior, the rising of the ‘Sun of Justice’ in the history of the human race.
Motherhood is not merely an insular responsibility, but a public vocation with deep impacts and reverberances into every area of society. Motherhood is a vocation that cannot and should not be limited to private, individual and seemingly direct connection to the physical elements of child-rearing. Motherhood inherently requires with-ness, with God, with our families and children, and with a myriad of civil society institutions that symbiotically form us as we form them.
The Magnificat, Mary’s Song of praise when she accepts she is the Mother of the coming Christ, typifies this posturing of with-ness. Mary’s Song is at once deeply personal, yet not private. Her in-most personal worship of God for the burgeoning Life in her womb immediately leads to prayers for political communities to uphold their right roles and responsibilities. In this way, the Song of Mary is a prayer for public justice:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones.
but has lifted up the humble
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1: 52-55)
As Victoria Reynolds Farmer observes, in the Magnificat, “Mary assert[s] that the power of God is made manifest in his inversions of worldly hierarchies.” The Magnificat marks Mary’s entrance into the with-ness of motherhood and the with-ness we all necessarily experience as members of a political community. Mary’s first prayer as a mother does not explicitly center her private home and family life. Rather, this prayer is an affirmation of who God is: He is the ineffable, limitless Word who took on the containment and finitude of human form, even as the smallest seed deep inside Mary’s womb. He is the God who walks alongside us, not only in our private worship and family lives, but in the office we all share as citizens in a pluralistic political community.
THE ADVENT OF MOTHERHOOD AS A CALL TO PUBLIC JUSTICE
The notion that motherhood shifts a woman’s fundamental identity and catalyzes her into deeper commitments to the shared flourishing of the human family is not new. In her book Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope, Jasmine Holmes writes that she did not think, when she was teaching her class of Emmett Till’s historic murder, of him as a little boy, until she became a mother. Motherhood shifted not only her personal identity, but her sense of responsibility to speak into the public square uncomfortable truths about race: Holmes writes to her young son:
When I look at you, I see your brown skin. I see you when I teach my history class about the murder of Emmett Till. I see you when I hear people talk about black men in a way that questions their worth and humanity….I see the future of a biblical legacy that began before the dawn of time.
Anya Jabour wrote recently for the Washington Post: “historically, women have used their identities as mothers to advocate for meaningful social change.” Although Jabour limits her analysis to an American postmodern context, we can see the truth of this statement built into the multiple and intersecting ways we carry out our imago-dei responsibilities in distinct, but overlapping spheres of life.
PUBLIC JUSTICE IN THE DARKNESS
We see this notion of motherhood as a continuation of a “biblical legacy” which, as Holmes noted, goes back to time immemorial. The Old Testament narrative of Rizpah demonstrates that motherhood has public justice impacts not only in moments of joy, but in moments of deep sorrow and suffering. Rizpah was a grieving mother whose personal acts of caregiving, even after the death of her children, had political and social impact on the health of a nation.
Rizpah’s sons were executed, for complex political reasons, by King David. The bodies of her sons were left exposed. 2 Samuel 21:10-11 tells us that Rizpah obtained ritual mourning cloth and enveloped it upon a stone where she stayed tending to the bodies of her sons for perhaps half a year: “From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night.”
Rizpah, in this time, was in her own season of darkness and anticipation. This, too, is the essence of Advent. The waiting in the darkness for the coming of the Light. Darkness, not as a source of evil, but as the depths of the sea or the soil bring forth the gestation of new hope.
For Rizpah, this was a season which surely felt more like ‘not yet’ than a ‘now.’ And yet, God was with her. As Kat Armez notes: “She wanted justice, and she dared to believe that God wanted justice too. Rizpah is considered an activist, one who not only took action to seek justice for the bodies but boldly shamed the king for not properly burying Saul and his sons.”
In response to the constancy and faithfulness of the acts of one marginalized grieving mother, King David gave the bodies of these men a proper burial. But more than that, only after King David had buried the bodies did God heal the nation of Israel by bringing relief from famine. Rizpah’s own quiet, humble maternal activism brought justice to her political community. And in that healing, justice came in the form of rain, demonstrating the interconnectedness of all of life: family, political community, and the community of creation in our natural world.
FOR THAT HAPPY DAY
As I write this, Cat Stevens’ classic Tea for the Tillerman plays in the background, and my two-year-old whirls in circles, coming into close contact with the dangerous edge of a third-hand, cherry-wood coffee table. He, too, is in his own, mini, toddler Advent. Waiting for his mama to come play. The familiar chords carry words I know so well they barely register. Only right now, as I prayerfully discern how to end this article, do they register: “Wine for the woman who made the rains come.”
Did Cat Stevens know of Rizpah? Or perhaps a Rizpah of another name? A mother whose love brought a healing justice that her people needed? A mother who points us – like Mary, Rizpah, and innumerable mothers before her – to the Kingdom of God, already here and not yet fully realized: “For while the sinners sin/the children play/Oh Lord how they play and play/For that happy day, for that happy day.”
The little children. The poor. The mourners. The mothers on the margins who broke open their bodies, their pride, their own identities, to bring new Life, new Justice, to the world. Theirs is the Kingdom of God.
This Advent, let us meditate on that expectant posturing of this season of waiting that we see physically, spiritually and even cosmically, in the story of Mary. To meditate upon the role of Mary is not to deny or downplay the Christ-child, the one True God. Rather, all of us, regardless of our parental status, can learn something of Jesus by considering the woman who bore the God of Justice. And we can continue to learn from all the biological and spiritual mothers who midwife public justice everyday.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
– Isaiah 9:6
Chelsea Langston Bombino is a believer in sacred communities, a wife, and a mother. She serves as a program officer with the Fetzer Institute and a fellow with the Center for Public Justice.
(1) This article focuses on the biological and spiritual motherhood to reveal the nurturing nature of God that is an essential, though oft overlooked part of His image, and our image-bearing. This spiritual nurturing equally applies to men, although not the subject of this specific article. For more, see this excellent resource in Christianity Today on Joseph.
(2) For the purposes of full disclosure, I contributed an essay to this book with my husband, Josh.