12/24/2012 02:08 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Live Nativity: The Prodigal Mother

My mother always taught us that no one should be alone at Christmas. We must expect miracles and mysteries. The gifts of her Christmas were peanut butter fruitcake, cherry and pineapple fudge, and virgin eggnog, since we were raised Southern Baptist teetotalers.

When we kids bundled up for the midnight "Live Nativity" scene on the frozen lawn of our church, our thermoses were filled with spicy hot chocolate and our pockets stuffed with sausage cookies. This drew the attention of the dogs, who often stood by the manger as Christmas camels or lowly cows.

It seemed quite in keeping with the Christmas theme that the girl who played the part of Mother Mary was an unwed, pregnant teenager. This live tableau was her redemption. This girlish Mary approached the makeshift barn astride a real donkey, her eyes downcast. Beside her was an upstanding, but fidgety Joseph in a funny, false beard. The holy couple was awaited by a shivering gaggle of children, Wise Men who were really church deacons; and shepherds who were local farmers. One had even brought several sheep, which the dog-camels herded near the manger. I was always so happy to see the newborn savior attended by animals--that was my idea of worship.

This Mary struck awe in all of us because we knew her back story. She was a runaway from "pillars of the church" parents. Prodigal, she had returned home for Christmas -- eight months pregnant. Our kindly Pastor Joe put out the word that her story was not unlike that of the real Mother of God, who had to leave her home. And her story might also have seemed suspect, like when Mary told of an angel's visit and divine conception.

We were strangely moved by this modern Mary. The girl calmed herself in her starring role by nervously chewing bubble gum. It never occurred to us before seeing that Live Nativity, that the mother of such an important baby might have been frightened or felt alone. But this young Mary evoked in us a quality that I was just beginning to understand: Mercy.

I'd never met an unwed mother. As I watched this young girl shiver and drop her eyes, I thought: So many mothers in the world must bring children into the world alone. Aren't all of these children divine?

The teenage Mary must have felt our acceptance, because as the spotlight shone on her head, a chill halo circled her. Gracefully, she laid her hands atop her high belly. For the first time, she looked out at us, blowing a huge, pink bubble. It popped, plastering her face with an incandescent pink veil. Then, she grinned, ear-to-ear.

After that Christmas pageant, bubble gum became a staple of our stockings, a little ritual that my Catholic friends -- who usually cornered the market on Mother Mary and miracles -- had to envy. Every time I opened my stocking stuffed with pink bubble gum, I tried to blow a bubble as big as the Mother of God.

Brenda Peterson is the author of 17 books. This story was adapted from her recent memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named a "Top Ben Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year" by The Christian Science Monitor. You can listen to this story as told by the author on NPR.
For more: www.BrendaPetersonBooks.