Soon and very soon, we will contemplate the Gospel reading for Christmas Eve. In this text from Luke, we will read of the journey of Mary and Joseph and of the birth of Jesus in a manger; we will read of shepherds and angels and glory. At the last, we will catch sight of the contemplative Mary. It is the briefest glimpse: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Tucked into the very end of the text, it nearly eludes our notice. Yet more and more I find myself thinking that the heart of this story lies here, in the way that Mary gathers up all the pieces of the story and holds them within herself.
But not yet, not quite; a day or two still before we turn to this tale of glory that gives way to a space of stillness. For now, let us open a different window onto Mary.
In the book of Revelation, in chapter 12, John tells of a vision of a celestial woman who labors to give birth to a child as a dragon waits, intent upon destroying the child. Across the centuries, many interpreters have viewed this as an image of Mary. While the text itself does not confirm this, the story of the sun-garbed woman struggling to give birth certainly resonates with the tale of the mother of Christ. And so, on this Advent night, I offer this image that emerged as I contemplated this passage many years ago, along with this reflection and poem:
Clothed with the Sun
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth. —Revelation 12.1-2
It took three tries to begin to do her justice. In the first rendering, she wore a dress with a golden sun on it and looked very static. I read the story again and realized what is really says: that she was clothed with the sun, not with a sunny dress. So the second try had her swathed in the sun itself, with rays etched in gold wrapped around her body.
When I looked at the piece months later, I realized that the gold on the bottom layers of paper had soaked through the upper pieces. It looked unfixable. No matter; I realized I didn’t like it so much anyway.
When I returned home from a trip to Toronto with some fabulous gold paper from the Japanese paper shop there I realized it was for her and went, literally, back to the drawing board. As this dark-skinned, dark-haired woman began to emerge, I remembered a poem by Joy Harjo. “Early Morning Woman” tells of a woman stretching in the new day’s sun, moving with the strength of the child who grows in her belly. I had used the poem in my first book, in the section about this celestial woman who moves in the agony and hope of birth. Now the early morning woman took shape before me, dazzling in her luminous garb.
I always return to her, to the terror of her birthing and the force of her loving. In this Advent season, this sun-garbed woman, in labor as a dragon waits to devour her child, reminds me that the cave of the heart is not a place of escape. It is a place to wrestle with those personal dragons that emerge only when we slow down, a place to struggle with those parts of ourselves we hesitate to confront and which we sometimes stifle with too much work or too much play or too many possessions or with substances that dull the ache we cannot name. This struggle is integral to preparing for the labor; it is part of the labor itself. Hiding from myself won’t sustain me through the travail, and being merely nice won’t give me strength for the birthing, and my silence won’t protect what I bring forth from that which seeks to destroy it.
Sun Woman Speaks
When it was all over
they asked me for a charm
for banishing dragons.
look them in the eye
and call them by name.
It makes them mad as hell,
but they can’t abide
of their name.
[Art, reflection, and poem are from “Advent: The Cave of the Heart” in the book In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season © Jan L. Richardson.]