Ten minutes before the service starts the tall wooden doors at the front of the church swing open, and a priest hurries through. He is pounding down the aisle in full stride, and as my one-year-old daughter spots him, she squeals in recognition and holds out her hand. He whirls around to face her.
“Shhh!” he hisses. “Be quiet.”
And with a swoosh of his robes, he is gone.
My daughter drops the hand she was holding out to him, and looks up at me, confused. She doesn’t understand why this man she was so happy to see wasn’t happy to see her.
I don’t understand, either. Nor do I understand why I am sitting here, a Christian and a feminist, in the hard wooden pew where I sit every Sunday with my extended family — three generations of churchgoers all in a row — allowing a man in clerical garb to rebuke my young daughter.
I look over my shoulder and catch one last glimpse of the priest as he moves into the narthex in preparation for the procession, safely ensconced in a world of candles, prayer books, and vestments — a spiritual world, a world of the mind.
I shift in my pew. I live in a world of the body. My spirituality is twined with flesh, with bodies that bleed and birth and nurse their young. That is the high calling of motherhood: a demand that we learn to negotiate the spirit world while remaining firmly rooted in our earthly humanity.
I glance down at my daughter. She has recovered from the encounter, now flipping through a Bible with her chubby hands, but I have not. This isn’t the image of the church I want to give her, that we allow men in fancy dresses to tell us we’re not welcome — for being women, for being flesh, for being noisy, for being young. I tuck a wisp of hair behind her ear.
I could leave. The door isn’t that far behind me, I could make it out before the first chord of the opening hymn. I could walk out and not come back until my daughter is asleep…or until she is two, or twelve. Or never. I roll these options around in my mind as the congregation reaches for hymnals.
But I don’t want to leave. I want to stay right here in my pew, with my daughter, a visible symbol of the messy realities of life. I make up my mind: we will not disappear. We who are steeped in the blood and milk of motherhood are not going to hide ourselves to make anyone else more comfortable. That’s not the example that Jesus set.
Weeks after the encounter, my husband and I are still talking about it, about all the ramifications of our daughter being told, effectively, that she is not welcome in the house of the Lord. We talk about leaving the church — the church where our daughter was baptized, where we were married, where I was baptized.
But in the end, we decide to stay. This priest, this representative of the church, is not the church — the church is the body of Christ, a phrase I resonate with, as a mother, now more than ever. I have been a part of this particular congregation, this branch of the body of Christ, long before this priest showed up; and I will continue to be a member of this church long after he has gone. He is not the church. Christ is the church, I am the church, we are the church. Alive and messy, wholly flesh.
Because isn’t that the point of this outrageous story I claim to believe? That divinity chose to enter humanity, that God himself was born as a tiny, squalling, infant human being? I am certain the baby Jesus cried in the temple, and wet himself and spit up on his mother. And Mary held him to her chest and kissed the folds of his soft baby neck, because she was his mother and that’s what mothers do.
I often feel like a trailblazer, carving out my own hallowed space as a conservative Christian, a feminist, a mother. But the space isn’t solely my own, and the path I’m on isn’t new. It is an ancient path, woven through centuries of faith — marked out by the footsteps of mothers who worshipped their God and raised their children, together, two halves of the same whole. I don’t need to blaze any paths; I just need to walk the one I am on. One step at a time.
Acolytes light candles, the choir lines up in shuffling sections. The organist slides into his console, and the congregation begins to sing. The crucifer lifts his wooden cross high as he begins the processional around the church. But my eyes aren’t on him. They are on my daughter, as she raises her eyes to look upon the cross.
She follows the processional around the sanctuary, her gaze never leaving the carved crucifix as she sings the hymn in words that are still all her own. On the last verse she throws both arms up over her head in high praise, a flagrant little Pentecostal in this Episcopal congregation, and my mother and I smile because we’re the ones who taught her to do that.
At the end of the collect her tiny “Amen” resounds in the cavernous church, later her enthusiastic “Peace!” brings smiles from those seated nearby when we share the Peace of the Lord. I don’t know if she thinks she’s saying “peace” or “piece,” and I suspect her enthusiasm stems from the fact that she thinks she’s asking for a piece of something yummy to eat. But it doesn’t matter: at a year old, she’s learning the liturgy, the legacy we are passing down to her.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the celebrant reads out at communion, and my daughter turns to me and waits for me to make the sign of the cross over her. All this she knows, she has internalized, from week after week, month after month, of the same endless liturgy. The liturgy, the legacy, of the body of Christ.
“She’s going to be a cradle Christian,” I whisper to my husband after she folds her hands for the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t even attempt to hide the pride I know is showing in my eyes. Except she’s never slept in a cradle. She hated the beautiful cherry-wood cradle that we bought to match our bedroom set when I was pregnant with her. Perhaps we need a new term. We make our way up to the altar for Communion, and I kneel down at the rail with her in my arms. She holds her hand up to the chalice bearer, my father, and he smiles at her as he tips the chalice to my lips. “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” he says to me. Then he turns to my daughter. “The blessing of Jesus be upon you,” he says, resting his hand on the top of her head. She laughs, and snuggles into my arms.
And suddenly I know what she is. She’s a co-sleeping Christian. I grin, right at the altar. I love my new term, both accurate and alliterative. A co-sleeping Christian; a cozy, happy, snuggling little Christian. A Christian who I pray will absorb the faith as naturally as she sleeps in my arms, a Christian for whom the body of Christ will be as comforting as a mother’s touch, as sweet as my milk on her tongue.