Advent season is always a study in the exquisite pain of waiting. We anticipate and prepare for the arrival of good news, a cosmic shift in our capacity for hope. We await the baby.
Never has advent felt more intensely personal a season for me than this year as my husband and I await the birth of a son we’re adopting. He’ll arrive within days or weeks—he’s only 32 weeks gestational age, but his birth mother has a history of preterm delivery, so each day we hold our breath and pray: stay in there little boy, keep cooking. Our eagerness is matched only by our trepidation. After all, such a tenuous border exists between advent and portent. Certain days I experience what the Greeks termed anamnesis, a deep remembering of things past, a kind of epic dejavu. In the church, the Lenten season services are designed as anamnetic tools for remembering, in a deep way, the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus. This advent season, I do more than reflect on the nativity story, I remember at a marrow and molecule level the uncertainty that must have accompanied Mary’s faith act in becoming Jesus’ mother. I have dreams where I encounter hazy angels; sometimes I think I can smell damp hay and manure in Graham’s nursery. I’m not crazy unless what we mistake for insanity is simply an awareness of one’s story as the same old story and a recognition of the “intersection of the banal and the numinous.”
Usually, I go to prenatal appointments with our son’s birth mother alone—not because my husband does not want to participate, but because sometimes the sacred femininity of our mother-to-mother experience needs protecting. He senses an archetypal experience that is not his. But last week, she asked for him and I too wanted him to hear his baby’s heartbeat, a heavenly sound that I had heard many times but he had not.
The clinic room was crowded: the birth mother, me, the social worker, the nurse, and Trip, a lone male in a gaggle of women. The nurse guided the sonogram across the global smoothness of the birth mother’s belly and searched. Seconds and more second passed. Then, the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh quick-time of the fetal beat.
“He’s going to cry,” I said to the birth mother.
He smiled. And then, as I predicted, he began to cry.
She sat up on the bed. Something in her demeanor shifted. With me, she’s silly and sarcastic; ours is an intimacy built on mutual humor and exasperation with womanly life. We can name singers and actors that the other likes and each other’s favorite foods. I know, for example, that she often swallows her chewing gum. She knows that I despise grading my students’ papers. She and Trip barely know each other, so she seemed dumbstruck by his tears or, rather, snapped into a rare moment of earnestness. She said, “Let him hear it again.”
Adoptive fathers are an interesting case: not much literature exists about adoptive fathers, although lately studies and books have appeared about gay adoptive fathers. The heterosexual adoptive father is like some rarely spotted mythic creature—we all know one, but we don’t have a common narrative—true or false—about them the way we do birth mothers and birth fathers and women who want to adopt children. This has something to do with patriarchy, I think, with legitimacy and fatherhood as linked to rank and honor and ownership.
A few days after Trip heard our son’s heartbeat for the first time, we went to an advent mass. The reading was from chapter one of Matthew, the only Gospel to chronicle Joseph’s holy summons to father the baby Jesus. Matthew begins with a genealogy linking Joseph to the patrilineal line of King David in the Hebrew Bible, the inclusion of which fulfills Old Testament prophecy and legitimizes Jesus as one of the chosen people. To me, it has always felt like a patriarchal postscript to the birth narrative since no other gospel includes it.
Chapter 1 of Matthew reads:
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[j] and he named him Jesus.
As theses verses were read allowed in the cathedral, I rested my head on my husband’s tweedy shoulder because I heard them in a new way. The verses remind us that Joseph was law-abiding (a “righteous” man), and beholden to custom. However, he also knew that adultery was punishable by death (“public disgrace”) and so decided to dismiss Mary privately to save her and himself. Imagine what it would have taken for such a man to break the law and marry a woman carrying someone else’s child. Never mind that the real father might be a god, Joseph was being asked to become secondary to the story, to—for all intents and purposes—forsake fatherhood in its traditional sense and steward and love a child, not because that child was his but because it was holy in its own right. Indeed, Joseph mostly disappears from the Jesus narrative once Jesus leaves home. The universe calls Joseph to divorce his love from patrimonial law, to act out the role of patriarch in a patriarchal society while privately subverting its rules. The angel asks Joseph to become a vessel for Jesus much in the way Mary too is a vessel—Jesus will never become an extension of his human father nor a trophy to boost his ego.
Joseph has two jobs, it seems: to lend patriarchal lineage to the baby Jesus and to escort him and his young mother out of the dangerous state of Herodian politics. I don’t imagine my soon-to-be-born son as any holier than any other child; certainly he is no savior nor would I place such a burden on a child. And my husband and I aren’t holy either. But it’s hard not to feel the anamnetic pull of story here. By all accounts, Herod was a real estate genius—best known for the infrastructure he created by overseeing the construction of great buildings that even centuries later double as tourist attractions—and at the same time a tyrannical, despotic tetrarch, so much so that one scholar described him as “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.” He prohibited protests and hired spies to monitor the public’s feelings toward him. He ruined anyone he perceived as disloyal. That sounds too familiar to the current historical reality for my liking.
But in that oppressive kingdom, a teenage mother gave birth to new life with the help of an oft-overlooked man who sacrificed the epithet “son of Joseph” for “son of God” as well as any need to “spread his seed” in what we could read as radical opposition to patriarchy. If we are meant to understand sacred mythologies as compasses that redirect us, then perhaps today’s men should consider the example of fatherhood that Joseph illustrates, the suggestion in that great story that the lowliest of children may be their children too and that to decenter themselves from their children’s stories might be the greatest act of patrimonial love and masculine courage.
Meanwhile, we wait. Trip and I hang Christmas lights and take turns reading Dinosaurs Love Tacos to Graham at night, and our bodies tense every time the phone vibrates. We tell each other our dreams every morning, and make Graham repeat his baby brother’s name. He’s your baby too, we say. My baby, he says. I big boy. I think about Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary: “All my life I have loved the Sabbath…I loved the stillness of the morning, my husband and I speaking in whispers, going to my son’s bedroom to be with him, to hold his hand and hush him if he spoke too loudly, or if he forgot that this was not an ordinary day.” I think about what I’ve asked my husband to do by marrying a woman with infertility and a woman who grew mournful and impatient with him because I was so sure about adoption before he was. I think about our birth father too who, contrary to stereotype, is very much in the picture and has asked us to provide for and father the son that he created. I’m so moved by their manhood, its steadfastness and sedition, its relinquishment, and therefore, its abiding strength.
Amen and Merry Christmas.