All we cannot know
December 13, 2022
“Did she know? Have you even read the Magnificat?” preachers and bloggers implored, as this once innocuously regarded Christmas song became the latest rallying cry for women whose ideas had been ignored until repeated word for word by their male colleagues. In 2021, Curtis Ramsey-Lucas suggested the more critical question is why Mary, who did know and prophetically proclaimed the liberative power of her son’s life, wouldn’t be allowed in many pulpits to tell this to the very people supposedly gathered in his name.
I have read and sung the Magnificat, and I’ve certainly experienced mansplaining, but I’ve stayed on the margins of this discussion, perhaps reluctant to let go of one of the more Advent-sounding songs played on the radio at Christmastime, perhaps aware that this debate feels made for our social media inclination to separate and oppose….or perhaps because I am drawn to a theology of not knowing, especially as a mother.
My children are 21 and 18 this year, and the Advent-timed discovery of my first pregnancy twenty-two years ago is a distant memory. There’s something about the rituals of the season that brings it all back, though, and I will soon find myself decorating a tree with ornaments from the childhoods of three generations, tearing up at the memories of first and last Christmases, both known and unknown.
My husband and I became “empty nesters” this fall, and while friends waited anxiously at my side, tissues in hand, we have all been surprised by my delight in this passage. One friend commented, only half in jest, that she was going to share my Facebook pictures with every friend who is concerned about how they’ll react to their children’s departure from the family home: “Sending kids away to college is making you look so youthful; it’s like you’re a college student yourself!”
Our emotions are always contextual, and I am certain my ease with our kids at college has been shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent child to fly from the nest had been miserable through a year of distance learning as we centered our family health risks and community responsibility as the highest priority. His hunger for a peer-centered experience—and our readiness for him to have it—certainly made his departure easier to bear than when our daughter, our first child, left home. I slept in her bed for two weeks after she went to college, clinging to her baby blanket. Different moment, different child; in many ways, a different mom.
When my friend commented on how I seem to be aging in reverse with the kids away, I told her that distance has freed me from the very active parenting role I had taken when our kids lived with us. Technology has put into our hands the tools for almost constant knowing about the lives of our children. We can track their whereabouts with Life360, receive automatic notifications about their being late to class via PowerSchool, and find out who they’re with by who tags them on Instagram. I’ve been guilty of using this knowledge to request they slow down on the highway, to follow up on half-truths, and to generally stoke anxiety—mine and theirs.
When I think of the toll of depression and anxiety in the lives of young adults, the relentless assault of gun violence—especially in schools, and the millions of children worldwide who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, the truth is, I don’t want to know the future…. or at least I wouldn’t have wanted to know ahead what is now the recent past.
I suspect that for some of us, if we had known the pain our children would bear, we might never have had children—a sentiment I hear often from young adults who are now approaching what has historically been “childbearing age.” They know…they know…they know…about climate catastrophe, about the shape-shifting nature of white supremacy, about ableism and heterosexism and classism, about the threats to our democracy. They know, and this knowing has made them hesitant to bring children into this broken world.
While the song asks Mary if she knew about the miracles Jesus performed and his saving power, I really want to ask Mary questions like these:
Mary, did you know your son would be run out of his hometown?
Did you know he would be betrayed by the very friends with whom he had just broken bread?
Did you know he would be executed, and you would watch, powerless to save him?
Did you know all of this and decide it would still be worth the memory of a child’s sticky hand in yours, or your pride in seeing how crowds responded to the sound of his voice?
Maybe she did know, and she said “Let it be” all the same. Maybe she didn’t, and her proclamations were just Scripture-infused dreams for her child to be, in that way we often imagine our children as both healers of the past and hope for the future.
In her Christmas song “Grateful,” my favorite singer-songwriter Lori McKenna writes:
Mother Mary’s holding out her arms
I wish I could rush into them
Underneath her solemn look there’s a smile
Now that it’s Christmas time again.
Sometimes I visit Mary at the Genesis Spiritual Life and Conference Center near my home. In my own way, I’ve rushed into her arms and asked her, “Did you know?” —not about her child, but usually one of mine. Her answers have surprised me, bringing wisdom and comfort, yes, but also silence and mystery and a reminder that, though there’s so much we cannot know, at Christmas and always, we have each other.