As a little girl in a Christian house, the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus was always a favorite of mine, and I remember pestering my mother to tell me the tale again and again. Her version went like this:
Once upon a time, on a winter night long ago, a woman named Mary traveled with her fiancé to a town called Bethlehem to enroll for the tax. Mary’s stomach bulged with pregnancy, and the couple trudged up and down the city streets, unable to find a hotel room. They finally settled into a barn, the air inside heavy with the smell of animals, just in time for Mary to go into labor in her scratchy bed of hay. For hours she struggled and cried, drops of sweat sliding down her face, until at last she delivered a baby boy, the result of her union with the Holy Spirit. The virgin mother’s eyes widened with wonder as she looked at her son, and shepherds nearby heard angels sing the news of the birth of a savior, their voices ringing over the land like bells.
I can still feel the way the story resonated in my child-mind, magical and yet factual, capturing a time in history when miracles happened. However, when I turned eighteen and left the home I grew up in, I chose also to move away from many of the ideas I had never questioned before: the necessity of organized religion, the image of a male god patrolling the heavens, the literal and historical truth of scripture. I distanced myself from Mary’s story along with the rest of the Bible—at least, I did until last year, when I took another look at the tale.
The Christmas season was approaching, and for months, perhaps years, I had been sliding into depression. My plan, during college, had been to get a job that would let me buy an armchair and books and paper, so that I could spend my free time reading and writing. I got the job and the chair and even some books, but then the plan snarled. My job demanded more and more every year, and what free time I had I spent recovering from work. I had bartered my days away for a paycheck, my energies for an insurance plan, my personal creativity for corporate productivity. As Christmas drew closer, the sunset each evening found me almost immobilized by despair at my poor bargaining skills.
But one night that December, as I lay curled on the sofa with the lights out and a whiff of smoke in the air from the fire crackling in the woodstove, I began to wonder if Mary’s story might be true in a different way than history. What if the facts of the tale could function as a layer of symbolism masking the real message, as in so much of the mythology I love? What if treating the story like a true-or-false question made me deaf to the tale’s meaning?
If that were so, what were the story’s symbols and what might they stand for? Well, Mary could represent me, or my friend, or anyone. The Holy Spirit could represent inspiration, that breath of divinity that can fill us with energy and ideas. The child could embody our creations, the works that spring from our deepest selves, whether in art, science, or any other field.
In that instant, I could almost hear these words in my mind: It is in our darkest moments, when the world seems to turn against us, that through our own sweat and labor we can bring forth the best creations from within ourselves. These are the works that will save us, and all we need to get started is a bit of inspiration.
From her place at the heart of Christianity, Mary transcended religion and freed me to claim her story for myself, in my own way. She became, for me, a Great Creator, a God of Creativity. She helped me take the first steps out of depression and stayed with me for the rest of the journey as I reshaped my life around the work I love.
I can still feel her with me now, as another Christmas season approaches, and I’ll see her everywhere in the symbols of the season. The Yule log we light on Christmas Eve will remind me to rekindle the fires of creativity in my own heart. Hot chile sauces – both red and green – will simmer on my stove like a work in progress, then fill my belly with the heat of inspiration. I will place Mary in the center of the miniature manger scene, under a string of twinkling lights, and thank her again for her gift last year. She is God, and she is me. I think she will like the lights almost as much as the chile sauce.
BIO: Joanna Gardner has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and lives in New Mexico. In addition to reading and writing, she likes to hike, play volleyball, and indulge her addiction to chile. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org