The image of the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes in the straw-filled manger surrounded by nodding donkeys and loving, weary parents is so familiar to us, it is as though we were eyewitnesses of the birth. We have read and heard the story again and again as part of our core faith tradition since we were little children. Everyone loves a birth story, and every birth has its story. When I was pregnant with my youngest child, my husband, a federal prosecutor, became the target of a death threat by one of his prosecutees. The U.S. marshals became our constant companions, our special friends, as we described them to our 2-year-old twins. Whether on a wagon-pulling walk to the park or pushing a cart through Publix, they and their arsenal of weaponry were always with us, failing miserably to look inconspicuous.
Their names blend together now, but I remember it was Paul who drew the short straw the day my water broke some six weeks early, right there on the ultrasound table in the ob-gyn’s office. The chain-smoking, gun-toting G-man stuck the cherry light on top of the big government car and drove like a madman to the emergency room, yelling at me in between radio calls, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!
At the hospital we were met by my husband and his cadre of guards. The marshals thought it best not to reveal our true identities, so they took over pretty much everything except worrying about the life of our baby. People in white coats were nervously sticking needles into me and pretending to treat me like a normal person, though clearly I was someone either very important or very dangerous. At one point they asked which man was my husband. From my limited viewpoint I saw an army of guys ready to protect me from the Jamaican drug dealer they feared might be lurking among the pacing maternity dads and emergency docs. But I didn’t see my husband. None of them. From their knowing glances I could tell the white-coats had decided I was a felonious mom from the pokey, here to deliver the baby and then head back behind bars. It was years before I forgave my husband for choosing that moment to use the restroom.
By employing the highly technical medical procedure of inverting my bed so my head hung toward the floor, I was able to keep our daughter safely inside my womb for two more weeks. During this time strapped upside down, I enjoyed the amenities of a cavernous suite. My companions were pistol-packin’ Charlie’s Angels; the male marshals had begged to be released from the maternity ward. The place was abuzz guessing the identity of the top-secret patient with the private sentries. My room had just been vacated by Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, who had picked our sleepy town to give birth. So in what category of fame was I? Married to the Mob? Guns for the Irish? F.B.I.? C.I.A.? Princess Anastasia, frozen all this time?
My faith was, let’s say, in formation at the time, but I still recognized a good thing when a nun timidly knocked and asked if I wanted holy Communion. Perhaps rattled by the full-body search she endured on the way in, when the sister nervously opened her pyx, fragments of consecrated hosts flew all over the room. For some ghastly reason, God allowed me to find this the most humorous thing I’d seen in months. I couldn’t stop laughing. The nun was not amused! Still, I could not stop. My behavior even provoked the gadgets strapped across my belly to beep madly.
Eventually I managed to compose myself enough so she could say some prayers and give me the Eucharist. My behavior improved, and she came back daily.
Poor baby! When our daughter was finally prematurely born, the marshals even gave her a phony name in the neonatal unit, just to throw all the other three-pounders off the track. I found myself thinking their way: You never know which baby could be a decoy! The sign in her bassinette read Baby Snap. I didn’t care. She was healthy and beautiful, and that was all that really mattered. And since my name was Patient ZZZ, Snap was a tremendous improvement.
For me and for many moms, it is all about those moments when you first connect with the baby who has been yours, inside of you, but whom you’ve only just met. I try but I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be little Mary, only a teenager, holding heaven’s child in the straw-filled cave on that Bethlehem night. Maybe as she sat in the glow of the celestial phenomena God kindly provided, she whispered softly and tenderly in her newborn’s ear, Rest now, precious miracle. Sweet face of grace, you are born of God’s heart for all mankind. Still, this moment you are mine. One day your love will save us all. Tonight let me just hold you, heaven’s child.
Mary looked in her baby’s face and knew God. On one level, I think she must truly have been the perfect mix of humility and chutzpa in order for her to grasp the enormity of her mission and not crumble. I couldn’t do that. But on another level I realize that when I look in the faces of my children I see God every day. We all do. This humble, human moment is what God had in mind to help us see the face of Christ in each other.
Our story had a happy endingeventually. Not only did we have a healthy baby, we survived the company of our G-men pals well past our daughter’s first birthday. The wheels of justice move slowly, but they do move. The drug dealer is serving a life sentence, after a trial featuring dramatic testimony by me that would have made even the great defense attorney Perry Mason weep as he threw in the towel.
In that courtroom, for a brief moment, I met the vacant eyes of a man who felt our lives were worthless. Today I wonder: surely he had a mother who once held him in her arms. Did she ever whisper to him that he was heaven’s child, or that God loves him? Maybe we’ll send him a card this Christmas to let him know.