I love Christmas. All of it! The stockings, the scents of spruce and cinnamon, the ribbons and ruffles…. it is distracting beauty. It distracts us from our worries, our fears and our troubles…. and while our heads and hearts are supposed to be filled with thoughts of religiosity, the story of the birth of Christ for a long time, was foreign to me. I knew, as a Mormon, that I was meant to put more “Christ” into Christmas… but for me, my heart and mind interpreted that as celebrating the symbols associated with Christmas. My favourite was, and is, mistletoe, which was believed to bring fertility.
As an infertile woman with no hope of ever bearing a child, the celebration of birth was just a reminder of my own imperfection. As a result, for years, I found myself drawn more and more to the ‘worldly’ side of the holiday. Any religious highlighting that focused on the miraculous conception triggered a reminder of the irresolvable fact that my womb was absent of the miracle of most women. Though my heart was hungry for celebratory songs of divine women, the underscore of Mary’s etude rang in a ballad that had the habit of swirling me into a deep, lonely sense of worthlessness and depression.
The incessant reminder that Mary was “highly favoured” (Luke 1:28), which hallowed her womb only served to solidify the idea that I was not favoured of God. So it was in the celebration of the divine miracle of birth that I felt fundamentally flawed and increasingly detached from the religious side of Christmas. I wanted to feel the same way about Mary that everyone else pious seemed to feel, but my incessant infertility left me feeling like an observer, rather than Christmas celebrant.
And yet, I love Christmas. Stories of reformed Scrooges delighted me because it made me think of Atonement in a way that was impartial to fertility. Santa’s red robes and gift-giving made me think of Christ’s second coming, where it is prophesied He would wear red– symbolic of the sins he had forgiven, and bring us the gift of eternal life.
Reindeer’s glowing red noses reminded me that imperfections could be the source rescue and hope. Songs of Christmas romance topped my music lists. Whereas Christmas religiosity depleted my spirit, Christmas fiction, fantasy and even paganism, filled me with hope. Enough hope that I still believed, in my own way…. In this, the Little Drummer Boy became my favourite carol. Absent from the LDS hymnal, it spoke to me. My body offered no gifts, but I still played my song for Him… In my non-traditional way. My offering was the rhythm of ribbons and paper that swaddled chocolates and baked goods, occasionally topped with quotes from inspirational books and even biblical verses.
Then, one Christmas after years of my non-religious routine and quite out of fashion for me, I read the good book. I sought to reconcile my discomfit, perhaps even to find something– anything– that might appeal to men, rather than women, about the story of the birth of Christ. I wanted to understand, and perhaps feel the joy of Christmas as inspired by the New Testament. I was ready for a change.
As I read through Luke’s first chapter, I found myself focused on Elisabeth. It seemed in the time previous to this, the story of Elisabeth was taught to me as though it were but a side-plot or witness of Mary’s story. But it isn’t; it is a powerful source of inspiration in and of itself. She was called barren (Luke 1:36), but she remained faithful. She remained faithful after a lifetime surely filled with trials that were probably not just related to infertility, but may have been harder because she was publicly, and correctly, labeled as barren. She and her husband worshiped and served in the temple. They were known to be righteous, good people, even at a time when the birth of a son was paramount to…well… everything. Like me, she may have even been judged by fellow church members as unrighteous, not faithful enough, not good enough to do what women are *supposed* to do. Like me, she may have had to reconcile the religious tradition of women only as mothers, and understand that against religious trends and traditions that women are, and should be, spiritual leaders. And that female spirituality is wholly unrelated to motherhood.
Her empty womb surely caused her grief, I mused. But she was so in tune with the spirit that she, upon sight of Mary, was the first to know through the spirit that Mary was carrying Christ (Luke 1:41). Previous to Elisabeth, the scriptures only note Mary and Joseph having been told this fact by angels. Elisabeth did not need an angel because she was so very powerfully in tune with the spirit. She knew. Her own barrenness did not turn to bitterness that depleted the spirit from her.
And then, perhaps… I wondered , was even Elisabeth’s conception immaculate? After all, against tradition, Elisabeth’s son would be named John… not Zacharias… as instructed to Zacharias by an angel (Luke 1:13). Like those in Mary’s story, an angel told Zacharias that Elisabeth was expecting. But unlike Mary, Elisabeth’s husband was told that she would “bear him a son” (Luke 1:13).
Perhaps Elisabeth’s miraculous conception was preparatory for those to believe and accept Mary’s miraculous conception of Christ. Perhaps Elisabeth’s lifelong example of religious dedication and worship encouraged Mary to become faithful enough that she was worthy to carry the son of God. After all, we are taught that Elisabeth’s son was one who “shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). She was clearly a powerful, and powerfully righteous woman…. who also happened to be barren.
That Christmas reading began my rebirth. I began to forget the blessings that declared that I would one day be a mother, because to recall them triggered me the think I was not “worthy enough” to receive the blessings that were once declared mine if I were righteous enough. But in this reading of Elisabeth, I knew. I knew I did not have a perfect body. But I also understood I did not need a perfect body. I understood that I could choose to have the spirit abide with me, regardless of my mortal and even spiritual imperfections. It was my choice. Finally believing that I had a choice was liberating. When people spoke of Mary’s divinity, I could continue to choose to focus on what I was not in comparison to Mary; or I could recollect the dedication of Elisabeth, and set an example for the “Marys” in my life…. even if there was not a child in my womb.
What is more, I found Elisabeth’s promise: “And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)
Nearly two decades following this personal revelation, long after I understood that blessings are not always bestowed based on how hard we try to be righteous, and that the strength to persevere was a miracle in itself …. much, much, long after I believed that motherhood would only be something for me in the next life….. I quietly drummed the name of one of my adopted daughters on the form that would become her new birth certificate. I had chosen her name decades before she came into my life, when I thought I might never really meet her on earth. And yet- she came. She and her sister’s adoption came in a manner that can only be described as miraculous. As I typed, I teared up thinking of my beloved friend whose name I was giving to my daughter. It was the name of the woman who led me out of the darkness. It was she who reminded me of the spiritual side of Christmas; the mother of my spiritual rebirth.
“…and her name was Elisabeth.” (Luke 1:5)