I never had children; never wanted to. So I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about my womb. I never really had to keep track of its schedule, so I just let it do its thing, tended it as necessary without giving a lot of thought to what it was there for. I don’t even like the word “womb,” which the Online Etymology Dictionary tells me is from the Old English wamb, meaning “belly, bowels, heart, uterus.” Now, uterus is a word I’m more comfortable with. The Latin of it is so reassuringly remote, so comfortingly clinical. It speaks to me of control.
But womb . . . womb is about the sometimes routine, sometimes unpredictable, often messy business of womanhood. A uterus is the sort of thing that shows up at the clinic to be diagnosed and treated. Wombs, on the other hand, gather around kitchen tables, schoolrooms and sick rooms and deathbeds. They dry your tears and welcome you home when you have nowhere else to go.
“Lo, he abhorred not the Virgin’s womb,” the great hymn of Christmas tells us. This makes some people uncomfortable, partly because they don’t much want to think about Our Lady’s private bits, and partly because it sounds misogynistic: why, after all, should he “abhor” a woman’s body? And let’s don’t get started on the whole “virgin” thing.
But I love this line. It tells me that God’s plan from the very beginning was to dive straight into the messiness of being human. I can just imagine God in the process of creating the whole bloody business of life and thinking, “I’m going to make a home there.” There, at the very heart of what it is to be female–there is God, about to become man. Maleness and femaleness are bound up in this together, and before it’s over the whole thing is going to get very messy and very bloody indeed.
The Life that will transcend all boundaries begins in a small, confined space that is dark and quiet. The weakest, sexiest part of the weaker sex is actually unbelievably strong and resilient. Name another organ that can swell up to five times its usual size, from orange to watermelon, and then revert to normal in the space of a few short weeks. God had to be laughing over the blueprints: “Oh yeah, and the men will always think they’re stronger.”
Advent is the Season of the Womb. It’s a time when I want predictability and control, and instead I get messiness and surprise. I get my shopping out of the way early, I buy the candles for my wreath, I plan to make my confession and spend lots of time in silence. And then I drop it all in favor of a wildly impractical trip to see my parents, because time with them gets more precious every year. I miss two Sundays of church, and worry that Advent is passing me by. Probably that confession isn’t going to happen, and I feel like I haven’t showered in a year. I long for once to be in the right mood for the right place on the liturgical calendar. But it’s that very longing–for quiet and warmth, for intimate knowing, for a love that pushes and grows till it encloses something larger than the universe itself–that Advent is all about.
I want uterus, but I get womb instead. I want something controllable, but what I get is life: “Life,” as Jesus said, “in all it fullness.” That’s what Jesus promised, not predictability or control. But wombs are where the warmth is. So even though I never did much with mine, the whole idea of the womb is . . . growing on me. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes from it.
Susan Pitchford is a sociologist at the University of Washington and a professed member of the Third Order, Society of St. Francis. She is the author of The Sacred Gaze, God in the Dark, and Following Francis.