I’ve been thinking about pictures all day. It’s made me wonder what we did before cameras and digital devices that record images that we can look at weeks, months, even years later, and bring back memories that we might possibly forget if we didn’t have the photos to remind us.
One image I have in my mind today is my beloved first indoor cat. My then-husband named my little dilute calico “Dammit” because the ex- was forever yelling at her to get off the table, down from the curtains, or just on general principles. At her heaviest she weighed only six pounds, and the rabies tag she wore for years looked so huge on her. She was my trial baby, born six months before my son, and remained my beloved soulmate until her death twenty years later. I still miss that cat.
The other photo that has been in my thoughts and my heart today is a Christmas photo of my little blonde, curly-haired, blue-eyed boy that I swear was the cutest child ever born. He was born in the Philippines, and the picture I love best was one I took on his second Christmas, the first one we spent back in the States after our return. He wears his blue-and-white one-piece pajamas with the long sleeves and non-skid soles, the blue figures of the cloth being much lighter than the color of his eyes. I swear, I would have given almost anything to have eyelashes as long and as thick as his! His chubby little face had the sweetest grin as he opened a present, a Tonka Winnebago motor home. I have that snapshot tacked up next to my desk where I can see it often. He’s still adorable, some 45 years later, but this was my little boy blue.
Thinking about that picture made me consider Mary, mother of Jesus. Granted, Jesus never got a Tonka truck under a Christmas tree, but Mary never had a camera to take photos of her baby boy as he grew up. All her memories would have been kept in her head, not precisely somewhere she could keep with her to pull out and show to curious neighbors and relatives who lived at a distance. Did she have particular memories of adorable-child images that all mothers have of their offspring? Did she think about them from time to time as something reminded her of those times? I don’t see how she could have kept from remembering them; I think all mothers have those moments.
I wonder what her memories might have been when Jesus grew up, such as when she and his siblings went to try to convince him to come home, fearing that he would be thought insane and in need of familial care and, very probably, confinement. Did she think back to times in his life when she might have doubted whether or not he would have problems when he grew up? Did she look at him there among the crowd, and then hear that he repudiated her and the siblings? Did her heart ache for the little boy who would run to her and put his chubby arms around her in a huge hug? I imagine that might possibly have gone through her mind at the time.
And then there was when she stood at the foot of the cross, looking up at her grown-up son being executed as a criminal. Was there room in her heart for anything but the horror of what she was seeing and knowing the agony and fear he was feeling? Did she remember the first time she cradled him in her arms, wrapped warm and tight, and being safe in the shelter of the hay-strewn stable? Did she feel the presence of the other women, crowded around her there on Golgotha, witnessing what she was seeing, and supporting her in their communal grief? Did she miss Joseph’s arms around her, and the bustling of the midwife tidying up their temporary accommodation in Bethlehem? Did she think of the long trip to Bethlehem and then the journey to Egypt to escape the threat against her baby’s life? Perhaps she spared a thought for the three-day trek from Jerusalem when she and Joseph first missed Jesus and the rush back to find him in the Temple, astounding the rabbis with his knowledge and poise. Maybe all the memories ran through her head as she looked upwards, and her one wish was to take him in her arms again and soothe him, even though she knew it would be impossible.
I think of modern-day mothers who live in dangerous times and who hold their children close, hoping that no harm will ever come to them. How many of them will not have a photo of their child to remember them in happier times, only memories of shattered, battered bodies lying amongst the rubble of bombed and burned homes? What of the children who have been ripped from their parents’ arms to be put into cages and tents far from anything familiar, and who cry for comfort and safety? How can it be possible for us to cherish our children so much but have so little regard for the children of others who are lost and afraid?
My heart aches for Mary, even as I prepare to celebrate the beginning of the journey to Bethlehem and beyond. I have the chance to look back at various times in my son’s life, knowing she didn’t have that luxury except in her memories. Right now, I honestly want to keep my eyes on that picture of my little two-year-old boy, smiling as he opens a toy under the Christmas tree. Looking at photos of migrant children and those who are incarcerated simply because their parents sought to bring them to safety, as Mary and Joseph tried to find in Egypt, is almost more than I can bear.
Even though I have just begun the season of Advent, the images on my wall remind me that the journey doesn’t end at 11:59 PM on December 24th. Still, I can’t help but think ahead and put myself in Mary’s place. I’ve been a mother (still am, thankfully), and have reminders of my little boy’s first home-made Christmas ornament (a reindeer made from clothespins he made in daycare at age four), pictures of him sitting on my brother’s front steps on a trip back to Virginia when he was about ten, and a graduation picture from high school. I treasure them and hope that Mary had good memories to hold in her heart through the years of her life.
Cherish the memories of the good things and times and work for those who need good things to happen for them.
Image: Cat under the Christmas tree, taken by author, December 1974.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. Her domestic fur-kids, Dominic, Gandhi, and Phoebe, keep her company and often quite amused. Getting the three of them to pose under a Christmas tree peacefully is impossible.