Mary Definitely Knew

They brought the baby to our doorstep. Five days old. Directly from the hospital. One […]

Ben Maddison / 12.21.18

They brought the baby to our doorstep. Five days old. Directly from the hospital. One outfit. Four pre-made bottles. A handful of diapers. A package of wipes. And a packet of papers that offered no definitive judgment on the proper pronunciation of her name. “I think it’s…” the social worker said. “I’m pretty sure.” A statement full of confidence, backed by the full weight and authority of the State of New Jersey.

Like any new parents, we waited with fear and excitement for this call. Two months since our state licensure. One year since the doctor told us we wouldn’t have children of our own. Four years since we started this “infertility journey.” We did tests and surgeries and diets and counseling and 29 hours of state-mandated training and a home inspection, about which one parent-friend of mine said, “If they made everyone do this, no one would be allowed to have children.” Our friends threw us a foster shower. We filled our house with baby things and toddler things and the most frustrating baby-proofing items that guarantee your fingers will get jammed in drawers for weeks.

But above all, we waited. And we prayed.

We wanted a baby more than anything else in the world. But the reality of foster care is that it exists because the world is broken. Child abuse. Drug addiction. Neglect. Poverty. Systematic injustice. Sin and Death. Our hope for a family inextricably linked to suffering and darkness of this world. Our hope and expectation married to someone else’s shame and guilt and pain.

They brought a baby to our doorstep. An answer to, but also the result of, so much pain.

It was all very Advent.

For the last three weeks, we have done what new parents do. We have felt (almost immediately to our surprise) the full weight and judgment of the Parenthood Law come crashing down on us. (“You changed her ten times,” the doctor said—eyes wide and full of judgment.) We have fretted over whether she was breathing the way she was supposed to (or at all) in her sleep. We have fed her every two hours. We have fought and bickered over many little, insignificant things—the little frustrations magnified by the addition of a third party. We have done so much laundry. We have washed our hands raw. And we have not slept. (“Sleep while the baby sleeps.” THANKS, KAREN. We’ll get right on that!)

It’s amazing how those menial tasks—the slave labor to the dictator-queen that is a newborn—make you love this tiny, demanding, unsatisfiable human being. She screams and cries and can’t do a single thing for herself—can’t even hold up her own head, the snowflake! But she looks at you with those brand-new eyes. And she seems to smile at you. And she nestles her head against your neck. And she needs you.

So, I cry. Because she’s perfect. And I love her. And I can’t believe she’s here. And my heart breaks that she can’t be where she should be. That she’s with us instead.

People love asking “are you prepared to give her back?” As if that is a normal question one might ask any new parent. “Are you ready to give this thing you love more than you knew you could back to the uncertainty and brokenness of this world?” Are you ready for her to not be yours anymore? Are you prepared for this all to end?

It seems to me this question could be asked of any parent. “Are you ready to lose a child?” Life is fragile, the world is broken. Things don’t go according to plan. “Are you ready to lose something you love?” Seems like a reasonable question—one based in the cold reality and statistics of everyday life.

But we don’t ask it. Cause it seems wrong.


This is why I think there is so much anxiety and handwringing about “Mary Did You Know?” People like to complain about its theological depth, its understanding of scripture, or the “mansplainy-ness” of the song. But all of that is just a front for our real anxiety.

Mary, did you know that your son would die?

Mary, did you know that this child you love, more than you knew you could, would be gone?

Mary are you prepared to give him back?

We don’t want to think about this. We don’t want to even say it, lest we speak it into existence.

This Advent, it’s the only thing I can think about because they dropped a 5-day-old baby at my door. And for better or worse I have fallen in love with this beautiful little girl. And I am in no way, shape, or form prepared to give her back.

And it could happen any day.

“Mary, did you know?” Of course, she knew. We all know.

“In the midst of life, we are in death: of whom should we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord.”

“Advent always begins in the dark.” So, says one of the patron saints of Mockingbird, Fleming Rutledge. There no denying the brokenness and darkness that exist in and holds this world captive. And yet, we look for, grasp for, long for with sigh too deep for words, the light shining in the darkness. The irony of our hope being found in a baby is not lost on me this season. The irony of the light scattering the darkness through the offering off—the handing over of—a son is not lost on me.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only son…” (John 3:16)

“On the night [Jesus] was handed over…” (1 Corinthians 11:23

It’s not only Mary who knew that her son would have to be given up, but the Father as well. God sent his only son into the world—handing him over to the brokenness of that world—so that the brokenness could be dealt with, once for all.

When people ask “are you prepared to give this child back” I am reminded of Mary and of God—and of all parents and all people—who know that one day, hopefully a day far-off, that they too will have to give their children over to the brokenness and death of this world.

But in that handing over, we are as ones with hope. The handing over of Jesus into the hands of sin and death opened the way for the correcting of that brokenness—the reconciliation of all things. As Paul writes to the Galatians:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So, you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Galatians 4:4-7)

“Are you prepared to give that baby back?” No. Not at all.

But when (and if) the time comes, I know I will be in good company. In the company of people who have turned over children in the name of reconciliation—the name of repairing broken things or making whole things that are fragmented.

It is in this handing over that makes possible the opportunity for adoption as children of God.

For now: we wait, and we pray, and we stay up all night, and we love this tiny child more than we can love anything else in the entire world. Because we all know that the things we love will pass away—we know it, Mary definitely knew it, and God knew it when he sent his only son.

So, I hold this beautiful, perfect child. And I will love her as unconditionally and totally as is possible until I give her back. Because we live as people of light in a world of darkness—and we know that imputing light, imputing love, imputing and praying for reconciliation are the only ways we can respond to a Father and mother who first gave up their son.

Mary definitely knew.


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11 responses to “Mary Definitely Knew”

  1. Andrea says:

    So powerful. This really got me.

  2. Susie says:

    So moving, heartfelt and such ❤️ love

  3. Jeanne says:

    Spoken from the heart Ben. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  4. April says:

    Thank you! Beautiful!!

  5. Carol Miro says:

    God will unfold your role in this child’s life, mother or placeholder for her biological mother. I have two adopted children and in-between there was another newborn, her mother was 16 and had kept her pregnancy secret and came to the hospital to give birth and give up her baby. My husband and I took the baby home and the next day the mother came back to the hospital and wanted her baby back. I drove the baby to the hospital with a bag of baby clothes. My role had been to make the choice to give up her baby a very serious, stark choice. It was not the role I would have chosen, but I have always felt that it was a very powerful role and I made a strong positive effect on that family. My time with that baby was a gift for all of us

  6. Susan C says:

    Congratulations Ben & Ashley! I am so happy for you.

  7. Anna says:

    Our daughters were placed in our arms on Christmas Day almost 11 years ago… I can relate to so much of what you are writing about with such precision and it’s perfect – thank you!

    Ps people will never stop saying thoughtless or insensitive things but you will find your quick responses and wear them in a holster ready to use based on *intent of the asker*

  8. Debbie says:

    Lovely. Congratulations!

  9. H says:

    Dorothy Parker’s poem “Prayer for a New Mother:”

    The things she knew, let her forget again-
    The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
    The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
    Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

    Let her have laughter with her little one;
    Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
    Grant her her right to whisper to her son
    The foolish names one dare not call a king.

    Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
    The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
    The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
    That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

    Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
    And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
    The proud and happy years that they shall know
    Together, when her son is grown a man.

  10. Lia says:

    This is amazing. Beautiful and powerful ????

  11. […] I said years ago that it was so appropriate that she came to us during Advent — because what could be more Advent than this. An unexpected newborn who demands nothing but love and carries with her the front-loaded suffering of so many people. Alive to be loved. Whose future is both known and unknown. Whose hope springs eternal, even as the monsters and the darkness of this world encroach ever closer. […]

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