Saturday, December 18, 2010

Birth stories

Last month my dear friend Carol brought her third son into the world. She did so two months after witnessing the agonizing death of her father from cancer (and only a year after losing her best friend to a brain tumor.) While praisefully baby Trent is healthy, her natural labor and delivery had some frightening moments.

On the day of his birth, as she shared the details with me, I remarked, "Wow, it just sounds so...violent." She replied, "Yes. Birth is violent. And death is violent. Having just experienced both, I can't stop thinking about the parallels between the two."

Two weeks later, her words still echoing in my mind, I stood before x-rays of my own bones. Aghast, I stared at my incredibly swayed spine and marveled at how much higher one of my hips is than the other. "Your pelvis is not only lopsided, but it was thrust forward," the doctor explained. Which explains why, almost three years after birthing my last child, I carry a little pillow with me everywhere to support my back, why I can't stand for more than five minutes, and why everyone still keeps asking me if I am pregnant. I know those injuries were caused by my pregnancies and childbirths.

Then we looked at the x-rays of my compressed and already degenerating neck, which has caused me daily pain for as long as I can remember. I wondered how it got so messed up? He shrugged his shoulders, "Who knows. Maybe it was a birth injury."

Because birth is violent. And death is violent. And we live a life of violence in between.

Recently a friend recounted the story of the unintended home birth of her daughter. Loralei described the pain and terror associated with giving birth in her bathroom after being sent home from the hospital. Then she added, "And oh my gosh, the blood. There was blood everywhere."

For years I have collected nativity scenes. I must have 20, 25 of them, from all over the world. All different materials, all different sizes. Each has Mary, Joseph, a swaddled baby, and a star. Some have angels and wise men. But you know what, not one of them shows any blood.

We have this image in our mind of what that first Christmas was like. Yours is perhaps similar to mine: under a great big twinkling star sits a stable. Silent Night tinkles in the background as snow softly falls. Inside are two or three calm, fragrant, and softly lowing animals. Mary, dressed in blue, reclines peacefully, smiling as though she had just received the most divine epidural. She grimaces slightly, and then, voila, a beautiful clean baby appears with a halo floating above his soft curls. Mary wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes, taking care not to muss the halo, and lies him in a manger.

This is the image that we receive from the snowglobes we're given in Sunday School. But we're grown up now, aren't we?

As a result of the sinful, violent world that we live in, because of the curse upon us since the beginning of time, there is pain - violence - in childbirth. Even the easiest childbirth is never easy, never without suffering. Mary fell under that curse as surely as I do. So I believe it is safe to assume that on the night that Jesus was born into this cursed world, she suffered.

The bible doesn't give many details about Jesus's actual delivery. I think the lack of details lends credence to the theory that Mary's labor and birth was ordinary for its time. Unremarkable in its similarity to every other woman's birth, then and even now. Drawing on my own four births, the births of my friends, and some ancient history, I can imagine our Savior's first birthday.

There was a young, frightened girl in a dirty, stinky cave in an overcrowded, noisy town, trying not to think of her friends and relatives who had died in childbirth. She was probably surrounded by women who had also made the trek to Bethlehem, some of whom she knew, some she might not have. Some who loved her, some who judged her and the suspicious circumstances of her pregnancy. Most who traded their own birth stories as her labor progressed and offered their advice. All of whom were witnessing her at her most vulnerable. But as her contractions came closer and closer together, the only thing Mary knew was that she had never experienced pain like this in all her life.

There was no whirlpool bath. There was no birthing ball. There was probably not even a birthing stool. There was probably a woman, perhaps even her mother, seated behind her to hold her still, rub her back, press on the top of her abdomen, and say repeatedly in her ear, "Miriam, you're doing great, good job, good girl, you're doing great."

There was no background music of a children's choir singing Away in a Manger. Instead there were probably grunts, and tears, and desperate prayers, and terrified cries of "Get him out! Please get him out!" and "I can't do this!" while the women soothed, firmly, "Yes you can, sweetheart, you can. Push!"

And then there were a few minutes when Mary thought her body was on fire, and she closed her eyes, and she panted, and she moaned, perhaps she screamed, and then he was out. And the women said, "He's here! He's beautiful! Look at him, Miriam, look at your son!" And he cried. And Mary opened her eyes, and she cried, and tried to move her exhausted body to see her baby. He was red, he was wrinkly, he was screaming, he was covered in vernix, but he was alive, and, at least to his mother, he was beautiful.

And there was blood everywhere.

He came into this world in violence.

He lived a violent life. As an infant, he screamed from gas pains. As a toddler he was covered in bruises from learning to walk. He skinned his knees. He caught viruses. He experienced the pain of losing his earthly father. His brothers scoffed at him. He wept when his friend died too young. His best friend rejected him when he needed him most. He suffered, both physically and emotionally. He empathized with others on a level we will never know. He knew the pain of being a human. He knew what it was like to be us, to be well acquainted with sorrow and sin and curses.

And he died a most violent death. He was arrested, accused of a crime he did not commit. He was flogged with a whip until his body was unrecognizable from the cuts and the bruises and the swelling. His beard was probably ripped out. He was stripped naked, and then his body was tied to a cross. A crown of thorns was pressed into his already mutilated head. Nails were pounded into the flesh of his wrists and his ankles and he was raised up. And as he slowly suffocated to death, he watched the anguish and horror on the face of the woman who had bore him, all those years ago, in that stable in Bethlehem.

And there was blood everywhere.

And because his Father deemed his tortured, bleeding body to be a worthy sacrifice, you and I have access to the throne of Heaven. For by that very blood, we have been washed clean of the curse of death. By that blood we are made righteous, by that blood we are justified, by that blood we are redeemed. By that blood, the blood that was everywhere, we are each reborn a child not of the curse, but a child of the living, loving God!

O, holy night!


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