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MADONNA IN BLUE JEANS

December 1, 2019

Long ago and far away, a young woman was startled by the news that she was pregnant. She had not had the first inkling, nor had she any reason to believe she was with child. She had saved herself for marriage. The attendant, dressed all in white, was neither a midwife nor a nurse nor a physician. The messenger who broke the news was the archangel Gabriel. The young woman was Mary of Nazareth.

Advent is Mary’s time. It is a season of expectancy for the young mother who lives in anticipation. But all of us, men and women alike, share in this pregnancy. This is a time of preparation for the arrival of a child, the nativity of Jesus. As surely as a young couple makes ready to receive a new child, we, too, must be ready for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.

When Clare and I got married, we knew that we wanted to have children.

We prayed that God would give us a child when the time was right. We became frustrated that God did not meet our schedule. We went for medical help and were told that it was improbable that we would ever have a child biologically. We pondered the possibility of adoption. We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when three months later, she had a miscarriage. Again, we were told that for us the possibility of having children was remote. We began to explore the possibility of adoption more seriously. After several months, Clare again became pregnant. The second pregnancy lasted longer, and our hearts were broken following a second miscarriage. I was angry. Clare was grieving.

We initiated the long process of adoption with paperwork, home visits, and medical tests. Within weeks before we were to receive our adopted child, we discovered that Clare was again pregnant. The choice was difficult. Should we terminate adoption and risk another disappointment? Should we continue adoption proceedings with the possibility that we would have two infants just six months apart in age? Our decision to terminate adoption proceedings was another grief for us.

Clare carried our child full term. We were expecting our firstborn to arrive on December 18, 1970. As these things often go, the anticipated date came and went, but still no baby.

As Christmas approached, Clare and I waited in Louisville, realizing that we would not be with either of our families for the holidays. We could neither travel to New Orleans, where her parents resided, nor to Spartanburg, where my family lived. We exchanged gifts with our families by mail.

Christmas Eve arrived; our child had not. We enjoyed dinner together in our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both families to wish them Merry Christmas.

Just after we went to bed, Clare had her first contraction. Suddenly, we were wide awake! At 5:00 A.M., we were on the way to Norton Infirmary in downtown Louisville. A soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the dark Christmas morning.

At the hospital, I left Clare in labor and delivery and went to admissions to check her in as a patient. When I returned her contractions had stopped, and she was sound asleep. I waited. Then, about noon on Christmas Day she went into hard labor. We had taken Lamaze classes and thought we knew what to expect. In old cowboy movies, when a mother is giving birth, they send the husband out to boil water. Lamaze is something like that. It gives the father a coaching job to do while the mother works very hard.

At 3:26 P.M. on Christmas Day our first child, Michael Kirk Neely, was born. We were overjoyed. Finally, we had a baby, born on Christmas Day! Both sets of grandparents were elated when we telephoned to announce our son’s arrival.

The birth of a child is always a miracle!

The word Advent comes from Latin, meaning to come. Some Christian carols become prayers of anticipation: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus.”

In a spiritual sense, all Christians are pregnant with anticipation. Every year, we celebrate anew the birth of a child, not just any child, but the one born in Bethlehem. To hold an infant in your arms is a reminder of just how precious and fragile a life is. To hold your newborn arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that in the birth of Jesus, God made himself very vulnerable.

Each Christmas, we draw close to the manger and look into the face of this child. Look closely. Did you notice the resemblance? According to the Christian tradition, this baby is the spitting image of his Father.

I have always been fascinated by the description of Mary as a woman with a pondering heart. As a teenage mother she had much to ponder; most of all, the miracle she held in her arms and the responsibility of being his mother. In truth, the birth of every child is a miracle. Every child requires a lot of tending, even when that child is Jesus.

I miss my mother more at Christmastime than at any other time of year. She loved this season, decorating her home, hosting friends and family, and as much as anything else, rocking her grandchildren.

One of the great comforts for me at Christmas is to see mothers and grandmothers holding little babies. So many Christmas cards depict Mary and Jesus, Madonna and child, in soft pastel tones. Many Christmas carols present the same picture. “What Child is this, who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” Little babies do sleep and are sometimes calm and peaceful. But they can also be quite demanding. Though He was the Son of God, Jesus was also fully human. In the familiar carol, “Away In a Manger,” I doubt that the line “no crying He makes” was true for very long.

The word Madonna is Latin for my lady. A part of Christmas for me is to take note of the real-life Madonnas in my world: our nieces cradling a great-nephew or great-niece; a young mother sitting on the front row of our Sanctuary holding her newborn as she listens to the Christmas Cantata; grandmothers taking delight in their third- generation offspring, giving new mothers a temporary break from the constant demands of parenting.

Among the most precious images of the Madonna in my life are the pictures of our daughters-in-law and our daughter holding their children. These images of young mothers, often barefooted and wearing blue jeans, cradling a newborn child are visions that are as compelling as any Christmas cards.

For nearly fifty years, I have witnessed the love and care and constant attention of one of the finest mothers I have ever known. When our children were very young, I would sometimes come home from a day of ministry to find a Carolina Madonna in blue jeans, faithfully carrying out the ministry God gave her. I have seen her attend to our children at the expense of her own needs. Now we have thirteen grandchildren. Clare thinks about them constantly and wants to be with them whenever possible. The longer I am with Clare, the more I appreciate her and see in her the same maternal love so beautifully depicted in the face of Mary.

There is a special place in heaven for women like these. I imagine it to be a place that looks something like the front porch of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. There are plenty of rocking chairs. My mother and mother-in-law are there. Both of my grandmothers are there. Every woman is rocking and singing to a babe in arms. Those babies, who in my mind have gone to heaven in what seems to us an untimely way, are bringing their own special joy to eternity. And those women and those children experience Christmas, as one of our favorite carols puts it, “in heavenly peace.”

For those who have lost a mother or a grandmother, Christmas can be difficult, especially if the loss is recent. It is my hope and prayer that all of you will catch a glimpse of a real-life Madonna and that you, too, will know the blessing of heavenly peace.

Blessed Advent!

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