“I also am mortal, like everyone else…And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air,
and fell upon the kindred earth; my first sound was a cry, as is true of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out.” The Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-5
Like most of us, I knew that Mary, the mother of Jesus was supposed to have been a young woman (some would even say a “girl”) when she gave birth to him. But it wasn’t until I saw Arthur Hughes’ painting of the nativity that the implications of her youth began to sink in. For in the painting there she is: with her hair flattened against her head as can happen when an inexperienced person is under stress. There she is: concentrating on her task of swaddling her new baby with such intensity that you can almost see her hands shake. There she is: clearly a beginner in caring for her new baby, a new baby whom she knows is no other than God come among us, God beginning human life the same way that any other human being would begin it.
And so both of these images—Jesus wrapped in his swaddling clothes and the young Mary concentrating on caring for him—are gifts for us this Christmas.
The image of Jesus wrapped in swaddling, mentioned in Luke’s Gospel and depicted in Hughes’ painting, is meant to speak to us about Jesus’ humanity and, as a part of this, to speak to us about his utter dependence on his mother for his care. Like every other rich or poor baby in the ancient world, Jesus was swaddled—bound in long strips of cloth that were meant to bundle and restrain him, making him feel secure and rendering him unable to move or do anything for himself. The message of this image, then, is clear. Jesus as the Son of God has become one of us, subject to all the vulnerability and dependence on others that would be true of any human baby. The incarnation is not partial but complete.
And then there is the image of Mary as a girl, a young woman, doing her best to care for her baby. She is a beginner, a novice in her role as a mother in the same way that we are as we try in our own ways to give birth to God in our lives and for the world. Like her, we will have shaky hands and perspiration on our foreheads as we do this. Like her, we want to offer our best to this task, trusting that our best will be enough and that God will make of it what is needed for this world of ours.
My wish for you, your family and friends this Christmas is that you have a moment during which these two images have a chance to sink into your consciousness: the incarnation of God is complete—there is no experience that we undergo that God has not taken into God’s self; and you I will always be beginners as we give birth to and nurture the new coming of God into the world.
Christmas blessings to you and yours,
Photo by Melissa M. Skelton, taken at the special exhibition “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement”
Seattle Art Museum, 2019