My first child was a little girl, a tiny little pixie child who now, at the age of seventeen, is still just over five foot tall, which drives her insane. She was always quiet, always picked up her toys - she really never gave me any fits at all.
In December of 1998, though, I was pregnant with a colt. Or a calf. I'm not sure which. But it easily could have been both. I was being kicked and pummeled and kicked some more until I was sure every rib I owned was broken. I was so, so puffy - I was doing the whole slip-on shoe thing because no regular shoe had been invented that could contain the amount of puff I was carrying. I discovered that year that I'm allergic to live Christmas trees, something that we didn't know until it was all set up and decorated in the corner of our living room and the insides of my nose were getting raw.
I had just entered into the stage of pregnancy I love best - the part where I go into a deep, deep depression and I'm positive I will be pregnant forever. As in, the child is never coming out and my stomach is just going to grow and grow until it completely takes me over. You really don't want to come near me during that last week or two of pregnancy. I can kill people. With my bare hands and the power of my gaze.
I was sitting on the couch, sniffling (because of the Christmas tree) and feeling sorry for myself (because I was never, ever going to have that baby and I'd be pregnant forever) while my daughter examined our little nativity scene. She was two and a half, and her whole little face was covered in awe as she named each of the pieces. "Wise man. Wise man. Wise man. Wise horse. Wise sheep. Wise pig." And as she sat there looking at the nativity, I looked at it too. Suddenly, I understood that story more clearly than I ever had before.
Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem.
Let me repeat myself. Mary, nine months pregnant, swollen and bloated, ready to go into labor, rode a donkey to Bethlehem. Pregnant. Donkey.
This was Mary's first pregnancy, which means that her labor was probably longer, which means that the odds are good that she went into labor while she was on the donkey. Maybe the donkey ride sent her into labor. Regardless of how all that played out, she was very, very uncomfortable. More than I could even imagine - no one has asked me to ride a donkey ever, let alone while pregnant.
Mary had just traveled miles away from her home, and was giving birth without her mother. That would have been so hard. We don't know if there was a woman in the village who came to help, or if Joseph helped her, or if she delivered entirely by herself. Given the culture, I tend to think that Joseph didn't help her, but again, we don't know. Either way, the isolation of not having her mother or a good friend nearby must have been so hard to deal with.
And then ... it was a stable. With animals. And animal smells. And animal ... presents. Yeah. Smelly presents.
When I looked at it from this perspective, understanding truly how hard it was for Mary to go through all that, all alone (Okay, she had Joseph, but let's be honest. Men can't understand what it's like. They can try, but they can't do it. It's not possible.) I began to think about Christ's birth from a totally different perspective. I also regarded my pregnancy differently. I wasn't riding on the back of a donkey - I was sitting on a couch. I wasn't having to deal with animals and their little surprises while trying to bring a baby into the world. I was so, so blessed to have the things I did.
And then, on December 9th, when I brought forth my firstborn son and wrapped him in a receiving blanket, I felt the joy and the wonder and the love that every mother, Mary included, feels when they look into the hazy eyes of their baby. There might not have been choirs of angels and adoring shepherds, but I felt guardian angels welcoming this new little one to the world.
We will never understand everything Mary went through. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to bring a child into the world knowing that he was destined to die for all mankind and then to rise again. Her experiences are something that the rest of us will never know firsthand. But we are united with Mary, as we are with every other woman who has ever had a child. We know those feelings of joy and wonder. We know what it's like to hold our baby for hours and watch every breath and every flutter of every eyelash. We know what it's like to ponder that child's future and wonder what lies in store for them. Mothers everywhere are united in our sorrows and in our joys.
Christmas of 1998 was the Christmas I came to know Mary. What a beautiful gift that was to me that holiday season.