By Mary Grace Mangano
There I was, sitting on a multicolored circle rug with my other kindergarten classmates. The religious sisters who ran our school were announcing our parts for the Nativity play which we would perform for our parents (bless them) in a few weeks. My little body quivered with excitement and anticipation. I knew what my part would be. It was written in my bones. It was in my own name. I would be Mary. I started picturing myself in the blue-and-white costume and holding the baby Jesus in my arms. I could see it so clearly. Sitting cross-legged, nearly bouncing with the certainty that I’d have the honor of getting to be Mary, I waited to hear it announced.
The annunciation came — I heard my name called — and I was not Mary. Was it the first time I’d experienced the disappointment of having expectations that were not fulfilled? Maybe. I was crushed, but I couldn’t show it. Not being picked for Mary felt so wrong. And I wasn’t even going to be an angel or a shepherd. I had been chosen to be a camel.
My best friend had been chosen to be the donkey. At least the donkey had a significant role, being the animal that carried the Blessed Mother and the in-utero Christ child! When my mom picked us up from school, my friend chattered about how excited she was to be the donkey and I pretended to be just as excited to be the camel. We’d be animals together! How fun is that? Once we dropped her off, I was quiet for the rest of the ride. When we got home, I went to my favorite spot where the sun warmed the cream carpet behind the couch. I curled up in the sun spot of late afternoon light and cried. I had wanted to be Mary. I was supposed to be Mary.
I had been Nala from “The Lion King” for Halloween that year. And when the time came for the Nativity play, my mom re-worked my Nala costume so I could pass as a camel. No special blue-and-white robes, no wings, no staff. Just a beige bodysuit and a spot in the back. We sang the songs the sisters had taught us, and someone read that beautiful passage from Luke 2 with tidings of great joy. Our patient parents sat through it all and clapped.
My family loves this story. We retell it and laugh about my mom finding me behind the couch and my silly Nala-turned-camel costume. It’s funny. But it also reminds me — now, looking back at it — about a virtue that sometimes gets joked about or disregarded, but which C.S. Lewis said is the most important virtue, on which all the others depend: humility. Yes, I was in kindergarten, but even that early experience taught me that I could either sulk about being the camel (and as I said, I did cry) or embrace the role I’d been chosen to play and celebrate getting to be a part of the Nativity, of reenacting the Lord’s coming into our midst. What could be more humble than God taking on flesh to dwell among us? Mary, too — the role I’d wanted — is a model of showing humility and accepting the role God chose for her.
In Advent, we might have all kinds of expectations. It’s a season of expectant hope, after all. In life, we have expectations, too. Sometimes we get chosen for the role we hoped for and sometimes we’re chosen to be the camel. But all of us are chosen. The King of Kings comes in the form of a small babe in swaddling clothes, born in the humblest of circumstances, and he also comes to us every Mass in the form of bread and wine. God chooses to enter this suffering world, to send his son to us. The weary world — and our world really is quite weary — rejoices. St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Humility means seeing ourselves as God sees us: knowing every good we have comes from him as pure gift.” It is all pure gift — even getting to be the camel is a gift. The greatest gift is his coming, the thrill of hope his coming brings. In Advent, we prepare our hearts to receive such a great gift.
Servant of God Dorothy Day reflected on this and wrote: “I am so glad that Jesus was born in a stable. Because my soul is so much like a stable. It is so poor and in unsatisfactory condition because of guilt, falsehoods, inadequacies and sin.”
No matter our expectations for this Advent season or this Christmas, there is cause for the greatest joy. Christ comes to the broken, weary stables of our hearts. He chooses to enter into the world’s darkness and we get to be there, to see him lying in a manger. Even if we’re the humble camel hanging out in the back, having crossed a desert to carry others to be there — it is a gift.
Mary Grace Mangano is a writer currently living in Philadelphia. She received her MFA in creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston as an inaugural Gioia Family Fellowship recipient. Her writing has been published in America magazine, Dappled Things, Fare Forward, and others. You can find more of her work at marygracemangano.wordpress.com.