“Your loving doesn’t know its majesty, until it knows its helplessness.” – Rumi
“Pretty bad day here – I think if parenting was something one was allowed to quit I would have by now …”
This was the content of an e-mail I tapped out on the phone to my husband while he was at work and I was home with our two kiddos, age one and three, approximately. Trust me, if you’re mind is jumping to judgment at the wimpyness of my parenthood or the flakiness of my fidelity to family; I jumped there first and with a larger arsenal of accusations against my ineptitude and impatience. But regardless of how much I thought I should be more patient and gentle and joyful in motherhood, what I felt was, to put it mildly, overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed in an implosion is imminent way that the ubiquitously used “overwhelmed” just doesn’t adequately convey.
“Remember that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, with the lepers?” I ask my husband who has called, concerned, after reading my e-mail. He does not remember. Do you? Despite its campiness, and the Christ figure’s wild falsetto, I was so moved and marked by this scene when I first saw the 1973 film version of this rock opera years ago. Jesus is walking into the desert, singing to himself of his mission and journey, seeking a quiet space to reflect and pray. As he walks he is confronted by “lepers”, covered in dark rags, first one, then two, a handful, then hordes, singing out their needs to him, urgently, repeatedly. At first Jesus reaches out to each one, compassion and determination evident on his face. By the end of the scene though, his expression has shifted to one of desperation, even terror as he cries out, “there’s too little of me!” The scene ends with his image all but swallowed up by the beggars as he screams, “leave me alone!”
That is the scene that came to mind as I thought about how parenting felt to me this past week. As I recounted it to my husband, of course digging up the YouTube clip to share, I recalled to myself why I had found this scene so striking in the first place and carried it with me all these years. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, the rawness of emotion, of vulnerability, the capacity for fear and despair in the midst of determination and faithfulness had never been so evident to me as it was in this midrashic moment. It was an ‘Oh my God” moment, not in a slanderous slang way but in a Thomas touching wounded hands and feet, “My Lord and my God” way. The idea of God coming to earth as a man capable of fear and exhaustion can come as a bit of a letdown for those of us who might sometimes hope for a superhero savior who will scoop us up from the messiness of life on earth and spirit us away to a pristine heavenly home. But imagine the radical, outrageous love that compels the God of All Things, Being Itself, Creator of the Universe not to scoop us out of the mess but to join us creatures, and humans in particular, in it for the sake of restoring relationship.
The same night as the e-mail, after the kids were in bed (hopefully for at least an hour or two before tumbling into ours), I was immersed in the warmth and rhythm of washing dishes, enjoying my empathic bond with an image of Jesus from the 70s and contemplating Incarnation. I was also listening to a rebroadcast of an interview with Fr. James Martin on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing. It was a seasonally appropriate rebroadcasting and they began to talk about Christmas, commercialism and the often overlooked scandal of the true nativity story.
“It’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo” Fr. Martin was saying, “It is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it… We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute.” But if you say to people, “Do you believe that that is God incarnate in that stable? What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine, sort of crying and wetting his pants and needing to be nursed? What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that?”
“What did he just say?” I thought. I had to rewind and listen again. I consider myself someone quite familiar with the nativity story, even the complexity and danger and dirtiness of it. There was nothing especially new about how Fr. Martin had described it, except that one word; “nursed.” One of the most beleaguering things for me has been that my daughter, who will be one on Christmas Eve, still nurses, on average, every two hours through the night. Calling it nursing, I feel, is another word that lacking. My daughter tugs mercilessly at my breast. I could never have imagined the elasticity of human skin before mothering this child. Her version of nursing is not a snuggling, nuzzling seeking of nourishment and bonding but a primal, mammalian, devouring of prey.
“And yet,” I am shaking my head in wonder at the thought, “Jesus nursed.” Jesus cried out in the night with pangs of hunger, of fear perhaps, of a simple desire for warm, familiar flesh. How did Mary feel? Was she exhausted and exasperated? Did she simply move on auto-pilot through the familiar motions? Did she have ever-present the prophecy of an impending sword to her heart and treasure every moment in which she had the privilege to cradle her child, to meet his needs and sooth his troubles? Here I had been imagining the overwrought Jesus, beat down by the demands of others and suddenly I am confronted by Jesus the infant whose whole being is a bundle of demands. It occurs to me that Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving. This is something we all share with him and each other.
The next day, despite the gift of perceiving Christ’s presence both in my weariness and in my children’s insatiableness, I continue to struggle. My tone of voice slips too often from calm to stern to angry. I say more “no’s” than necessary. I am not the person or parent I want to be. Still, at the end of the day, my son unwittingly reveals to me yet another way in which Christ is manifest in his small, precocious, presence. Washing the dishes again, this time while the kids are awake, playing with their dad, I am interrupted by my son popping in the kitchen, “Come dance with me,” he says. “I can’t, my sweet boy.” A few minutes later, he’s back, “Come play with me, Mama.” A third time, “Come, read with me.” Despite my eruptions, despite my busyness and rejections, he keeps returning to me, desiring to be with me, delighting in my presence. In his beckoning, I hear a phrase, so similar, from Jesus, “Come, follow me.” However helpless you may feel, however you have failed, come, let us walk together.
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.