The Pregnancy of Mary

This time of year, the Mother of God is very pregnant. The skin around her belly stretches to hold the weight of her child. She feels him squirm and settle as no one else ever will. He presses against her organs. She gets short of breath and has trouble finding a comfortable position at night for sleep. She wonders if she can stretch any more than this to contain her son and all he will become, yet each day she does.

As Advent nears, Christians wait for the child to come. We count the days and prepare for celebrations. In our preparation, though, we can neglect the gestation. Nativity scenes center on a bloodless and unattached child in the manger. We skip straight from Ordinary Time to anticipation to infancy, neglecting to dwell on the precious journey of the figure Christians for centuries have venerated as Maria Gravida—Mary, Mother-to-Be.

What did Mary feel in pregnancy, labor and birth? Did she have pain? Some mothers do more than others, and the canonical Gospels are sparse with details.

Many of the church fathers, from Augustine to Aquinas, held that Mary, free of sin, was surely spared the pain of childbirth. The apocryphal Protoevangelium of James depicts Joseph seeing Mary, nearing active labor, apparently suffering and then suddenly laughing. “I see two people with mine eyes,” she explains, “the one weeping and mourning, the other laughing and rejoicing.” When she wants to be taken off her donkey, she says, “that which is in me presses to come forth.” She then sends Joseph to find a midwife in Bethlehem, and when he returns with one, Mary gives birth in a burst of bright light.

The Quran—which refers to Mary more than the New Testament itself does—describes her leaning against a date tree in agony during labor, to the point of preferring that she were dead. But she has the aid of an angelic doula; a voice from the ground announces that God has run a stream beneath her and instructs her to shake the tree so its ripe dates will fall. “Eat and drink, and be at peace,” says the voice, and we hear no more about the pain after that. (In 2011, clinical researchers in Jordan reported a correlation between eating dates during pregnancy and higher mean cervical dilation.)

The image of Mary imprinted on Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s cloak at Guadalupe in 1531 wears the attire of an Aztec woman in pregnancy. The stars on her veil and the crescent under her feet have made it common to identify her with the woman in the sky of Revelation, who “wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.” As the woman flees with her newborn son, a child “destined to rule all the nations,” Michael and his angels fight the dragon, Satan, who wants to devour the boy.

Another common interpretation of that passage identifies the woman in the sky with the church—ever in labor to manifest her savior. Pope Benedict XVI has insisted that there need not be any contradiction in accepting that she stands for this and for Mary, both. She represents a Hebrew girl 2,000 years ago no less than she represents us, now—especially at this time of year, when we can accompany that girl in her strange, miraculous pregnancy.

The pregnancy of Mary, this year, coincides with pangs of violence in the land where she gave birth. Bethlehem overlooks the Palestinian sprawl of East Jerusalem and the manicured Israeli settlements scattered throughout it. Just to the north, along an apartheid wall covered with militant graffiti, the Aida refugee camp has stood for 65 years and counting. Just as there was no room for Mary in an inn, Palestinian women have given birth—or have tried—while stopped at the region’s ubiquitous checkpoints on the way to a hospital.

Closer to home, the United States remains one of the few countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. God may have dispatched legions to defend the woman in the sky and her child, but too few American mothers have even the protection of time. We often treat pregnancy and birth as a kind of disorder, resulting in a Caesarian section rate of more than 30 percent—twice the national rate that the World Health Organization recommends.

Perhaps we need to meditate more on the active work of Advent, not just the waiting. We can walk with the Mother of God through her pregnancy and labor, then meet her child while he is still covered in blood and tied to her with an umbilical cord. We can be her, her midwives, her doulas.

Bruce Snowden
1 year 3 months ago
Just loved the article on Mary's Pregnancy! The first paragraph brought to mind some simple lines I wrote maybe two years ago, which I now respectfully post. She looked at the stretch-marks Across her abdomen, Then looked above and saw them Etched across the firmament! They formed a path to heaven's gate, Through galaxies and meteors swirling, Untamed., unfinished, creation's work a-hurling! "My Father works" he'd later say, "even now." From Manger-Earth to Magi starry guide, To Abba's house where angels stride! Heartfelt words of tribute Mother Mary heavy with pregnancy, yes Nathan "this time of year" as you wrote - O Come, O Come, Emanuel!
Nathan Schneider
1 year 3 months ago

Thanks for sharing this, Bruce!

Bruce Snowden
1 year 3 months ago
Nathan, I have a few more lines that link to what you wrote. In the beginning the Spirit Moved over water. God said, "Let there be light!" And everything was bright. In the beginning was the Word, The Word moved into embryonic water, Mary felt within an Incarnatal leap, "Child" she said, "Go to sleep!" The Word responded, "Yes, Mother!"
William Rydberg
1 year 3 months ago
I am not your judge, judgement is for Jesus-God come in the flesh to do in the fullness of time. However, I have an opinion... When I read the article, I immediately thought of a homily by Saint Peter Chrysologus, bishop which is usually included in the Catholic “Little Office of the Virgin Mary” which was derived from the Roman Breviary, as I understand it, widely in use since the early middle ages… The quote is: “A virgin conceived and a virgin brought forth her child. Do not be disturbed at this conception or confused when you hear of this birth. Let no one judge in a human way what is done in a divine mystery by earthly reasoning. let no one treat this novel secret from knowledge of everyday occurrences. Let no one manipulate the work of love into an insult, or run the risk of losing faith..” Then I was reminded by the America Magazine highlight of Dei Verbum. Which prompted me to read over again the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum. After reading the document, it struck me that your liberal quotations from non-Christian public revelation documents in relation to our Blessed Mother is contrary to Dei Verbum which tells all Catholics definitively and dogmatically that there is no new public revelation (see D.V. Chapter 1 Verse 4). Consequently, quotes from non-christian public revelation documents written at least 7-8 Centuries after the last Apostle died, are inconsistent with Catholic teaching in my opinion. At Mass today, I was struck by the Mass Eucharistic prayers, in particular reference to: “…the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God…” In my opinion, some of your references leave me speechless.. I would go as far as to say in my opinion references to “..skin around her belly stretches…” and “..covered in blood..” as well as “…cervical dilation..” leave me cold…. Such is my humble opinion of your article… I don’t know you and as far as I know, you write like this all the time. I understand that you are a co-religionist. But to say these things in a Jesuit Magazine? Somedays, I really miss Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. more than others...
Nathan Schneider
1 year 3 months ago

What an astonishing comment. Thank you for it. So we can drink the blood of Christ every Mass, but we cannot fathom the blood that occasioned his Incarnation? We can venerate the wound in his side but not the stretch marks of his mother? We can eat his body but not speak of the organs that held it in place during gestation? Surely these wonders of his mother's body are not the insult Saint Peter Chrysologus spoke of. What is our faith if her blessed labor could possibly cause us to lose it?

I can agree with you that the Incarnation should make us speechless, but I hope that the moment of this great miracle and mystery and gift does not leave us cold. If such squeamish docetism is what the Jesuits have become associated with, then good riddance to it.

William Rydberg
1 year 3 months ago
You know, in my opinion I am just an ordinary Catholic who knows something about my faith. I know, that Catholicism is a mass-movement and every Catholic with fair knowledge of Catholic Doctrine and a relationship with Jesus Christ is entitled to their opinion. However, I am astonished that someone with your credentials, would imply that I was a Docetist? I, who prefaced my opinion with ..Jesus-God come in the flesh? Quoting a Doctor of the Church? I suppose that you thought that I couldn’t put my hands on a dictionary; or perhaps was incapable of googling? It’s my opinion and my hope, that you refresh yourself on the word meaning, and accordingly, do not use this word which is patently incorrect in this case given what I said, with your students. It will only confuse people! As far as your comments concerning the Jesuit Fathers who run this magazine, they can reply themselves if they want since you seem to have included them in your reply. Frankly, I don’t know if they have acquired a taste for the, in my opinion, far from orthodox, spiritual cool-aid that you are peddling. But that’s up to them.
John Casper
1 year 3 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, what Doctor of the Church wrote, "Jesus-God?" FYI Monophysitism is a heresy, because it rejected the Council of Chalcedon (451). Monophysitism "is the Christological position that, after the union of the divine and the human in the historical Incarnation, Jesus Christ, as the incarnation of the eternal Son or Word (Logos) of God, had only a single "nature" which was either divine or a synthesis of divine and human." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monophysitism
John Casper
1 year 3 months ago
Mr. Rydberg You're not a conservative. Who is "Jesus-God?" Is that your attempt to reject the Trinity? Are you denying the Blessed Mother was human? Are you denying “..skin around her belly stretches…” and “..covered in blood..” as well as “…cervical dilation..” accurately describes what happened to the Blessed Mother? You don't understand Saint Peter Chrysologus' homily. Mr. Schneider does. The humanity of Mary "leaves you cold." That's your problem.
David Cruz-Uribe
1 year 2 months ago
Thank you for this beautiful reflection. A few years ago I preached on Mary in labor for my Franciscan community but this makes a wonderful prequel. My homily can be found at http://vox-nova.com/2012/12/16/reflections-on-the-nativity/ Sadly several members of my community were horrified that I would talk about Mary having labor pains.
Nathan Schneider
1 year 2 months ago

Thank you for sharing this beautiful reflection—the unnamed midwives, and the intention of Francis to "set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs." Fitting, also, to end on a Hail Mary. A related prayer that works quite well as a meditation on the conception, pregnancy and birth is the Angelus, which I wrote about not long ago here.

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