Birth and the Passion of Mary
“All the ways old aren’t new.
Still the only way past is through.
Little stars that form Orion’s belt,
Before ziggy rat we wept and knelt.
Though sweetness bled from our one tongue,
Like bare nerves plucked, that passage stung.
The cleaving of the cleft is near.
The dust mote’s sigh, the nebula’s tear.
For the billionth time since time began,
Our Savior pup will be born again."
I wrote this poem while I was pregnant with Arrow. At the time, I was tiptoeing warily toward Christ but was still easily distracted by detours, various new-age esoterica I’d been dabbling in for years, and, of course, my own pride and ego. “Ziggy Rat” was my affectionately named ziggurat model, expertly hewn by my father-in-law, that I’d adorned with a rainbow pattern and used as an altar in our living room. So, while it’s theologically inaccurate to say Christ is born again and again with each birth, I’m going to let the poem stand, not the least because I can’t think of a better rhyming couplet at the moment.
The coming of Christ, Immanuel, God-with-us, the confounding mystery and majesty that lies at the crux of the universe, was exceptional in a way that no other birth has ever been exceptional. And yet, in some resonant, refractive way, I believe every birth is miraculous. Birth itself echoes the Christological resonance of all creation: we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it won’t produce a harvest. Because for him and by him all things were made and without him nothing was made that has been made, literally everything is a recapitulation of Jesus’ death and rebirth. Everything. And giving birth itself contains a residue of death, of trauma, of pain so intense the rational mind can’t contain it. Both times have been like that for me, and neither time did I go willingly.
Before Izzy was born, I was blithely ignorant (and haughty in that ignorance) of what awaited me in giving birth. I read books and watched documentaries and obnoxiously proclaimed to anyone who would listen that I was a planning a natural birth. Most people would smile sweetly and nod, some would roll their eyes and guffaw and say something like “just you wait”, while I frowned in offense. Only one of my co-workers at the time, Alberta - a woman in her 60s who had borne three children - penetrated my defenses and let my own nascent fears - the ones I tried to conceal with arrogance - ricochet brilliantly back on me. Alberta was real. She was so very real, and I loved her.
One morning as I climbed the stairs slowly behind her - she had a bad hip that made her limp - I asked her if I could help her at all. She turned on me swiftly, an eyebrow raised in amusement and incredulity, and said “What you gon' do? Push on my behind?”
“So, Alberta,” I began one afternoon when I was about six or seven months pregnant with Izzy. “I heard labor just feels like really bad menstrual cramps, is that true?” Her smile was barely perceptible. She was too kind to laugh at me, and too honest to pacify me with lies. She shook her head, just, staring at me all the while. “Well, I’ve had really bad cramps,” I fumbled on. “How much worse could it be?” She stared at me a bit longer and didn’t answer, the smile still faintly on her lips. She never answered me and just swiveled ever so slowly back to her computer, finally taking her eyes off me and allowing her head to follow her body only when she’d fully turned.
And then Izzy came, as babies inevitably do, and in a swirling terror of pain and blood and doctors and nurses invading my utmost vulnerability against my will, he was born. I am never doing that again, I swore. And then fifteen months later I stumbled out of our bathroom tearfully to show Steven a positive pregnancy test. He started smoking again. I fell into a depression and the fear engulfed me: I have to do this again. I have no choice. And then Arrow was born in an aura of candlelight in a tub in the middle of our living room, no doctors, no bright lights - just one kind and hands-off midwife, her assistant, my best friend and Steven. It was a far better experience, of course, but I remember still feeling shellshocked afterwards, and realizing that the darkness, the death, and the suffering couldn’t be avoided through the right environment and the right caregiver (though I feel strongly about those things). The death of birth was inescapable, that moment or handful of moments or eons (who knows? It’s impossible to tell) at transition when you become convinced that the whole “baby” thing has been an elaborate charade for what is actually taking place: your very person is being destroyed from the inside out. You are being eviscerated and you are going to die. I had one common thought after birthing both of my children, as much as I could formulate cohesive thought at the time: what the HELL just happened? (After Arrow, I also remember thinking “I can’t believe that is how babies come into the world. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.” and also “I deserve a plaque and $50,000!!!!!!”)
Am I scaring you? I hope so and I hope not. I find it interesting that the account of Jesus’ birth - and I am referring to the actual physical account of the birth, not its cosmic significance - in the Gospels is pretty matter-of-fact. Actually, it really isn’t an account at all. Mary gave birth. That’s it. The expected physiological sequence of events occurred which always presage a human child born into the world without hindrance and so, it happened.
Does that mean God doesn’t think birth is a big deal? Not at all. Scripture is rife with allusions to birth and its power. Birth deserves a holy reverence as a sacrament that is completely beyond our control, and as a powerful way to share in the sufferings of Christ. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, even went so far as to say that women will be saved through childbearing. What was a curse in the garden becomes a blessing - if we let it, if we go willingly, if we surrender, which, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve never really done in birth. Yet even so, and even though I sometimes shudder with fear thinking deeply about the hinterland of birth, about the pain so vast it seemed like my body could not contain it, would not contain it, that searing intensity that snatches words from the throat and cognition from the mind, even then - I still say: worth it, worth it, worth it. And to think, this love I have for my children that makes such suffering worth it is but a trinket simulacrum, tainted by sin but with its mysteriously made-in-the-image core twinkling with the echo of its Maker, of the love the Father had for us that made the cross worth it.
But why? Why the darkness before the dawn, the death before the resurrection? Why did God make this world so topsy-turvy, so paradoxical, so enchantingly and disorientingly upside-down, where the first are last and the last first and the aggrieved are blessed and the foolish things confound the wise and love never fails but human power and wisdom do? Where weeping lasts for a night but joy comes in the morning, where Christ descended in order to ascend, where faith alone is certainty, where suffering is joy and to die is gain? Where God became flesh and dwelt among us in the most vulnerable form possible, a newborn homo sapien? And why did he make a world that can’t be understood except through this son, through Him for whom and by whom and through whom all things were made, and even then not an intelligibility so much as a trusting, a falling, a surrender that brings joy and peace? You can’t put your finger on God. I don’t know, but I know it can be trusted. And I don’t even know how I know that… but I do.
So, I wonder this Advent, why did God choose Mary? Because she was young and naive enough not to know what awaited her? Or because she was beautifully innocent, and had faith like a child? I wish I could say Advent was a purely joyous experience for me, infused with a hopeful waiting that both knows the Savior has already come and looks ahead to his return. But it isn’t, if I’m being honest, because I know that preceding either of those events is birth. And even though I know Jesus’ most constant refrain (do not be afraid!), and I say and believe all the things I wrote above about birth and its significance, there are two things that I still fear, two things that stubbornly malinger on the periphery of my consciousness, taunting me with their enormity, their epic bigness because they not only bookend but also bleed through and inform and shape life itself: birth and death. And both contain the other within them! And I know that before Christmas can come, before Immanuel - God with us - could arrive, Mary had to give birth.
I can see her. A girl of about 15, 11 years younger than I was the first time I gave birth. She’s in a barn and not a harshly illuminated hospital bed or an inflatable birthing tub in a candlelit living room, but it doesn’t matter anymore, because she’s in the thick of it: the contractions that radiate through her young body, her barely adolescent body, widen her eyes and send her mind into a stratosphere better understood by the animals lowing and bleating and shifting anxiously around her than her own husband. Did she cry? I can’t imagine she didn’t. Did she moan and writhe and beg God for help? I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have. Did the same ugly guttural sounds issue from her throat as did mine when she pushed, and did she start crying when she felt the defeat of her baby’s head retreating, as I did? Did she shake her head and despair at the moment just before the final push, when it seemed absolutely impossible that this baby could actually emerge, that she could have the strength and the courage to push through the white-hot fire and deliver the son of God into the world? Or did she have faith? Was she quiet, gentle, as accepting as she had been of the pregnancy itself of this passage, the monumental cleaving of where even her husband had not yet been?
However it was, the impossible became possible with God: our Savior slid into the world, from compression to expansiveness, from the flesh-swaddled wombworld into the boundless ether, his slippery skin marbled by vernix and blood. It was a dirty birth but birth IS dirty and bloody and earthy and kind of horrifying, something our neurotically antiseptic hospitals, with their multiply-santitized beds and instruments and bleeping monitors belie. Miracle, infinite beauty, wonder, mystery: God with us. God, HERE, visible, tangible, flailing his weak little limbs and desperate for the comfort of his mother’s breast. Vulnerability incarnate. God incarnate. It was miraculous beyond miraculous.
I remember the feeling afterwards, the profound relief and joy that a child had been born into the world. Arrow was born at 7:13 p.m., but we stayed up almost all night, just watching her, with her watching us, and all of us luxuriating in the miracle. The stultification of the pain made space for the wonder. The salting with fire cleansed me, gave me childlike eyes to see. The death of the suffering nourished the new life.
Yet, somehow, it was still incomplete, and the darkness lingered, I believe because I didn’t yet know Christ. Could it be different now that I do? I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to give birth again. I pray I do, but I wonder: could I finally go willingly? Why is it so hard for us to die? Because we don’t trust that there could be something infinitely better on the other side? Because we don’t trust that the glorious, prismatic resurrection awaits? Even if we’ve witnessed it before - and I certainly have - we still don’t believe there is a depth and breadth of beauty and mercy and joy that could possibly account for all this pain, could possibly make up for all this suffering, could possibly redeem all… this. But oh, there is. Jesus’ questions resound in my cynical heart… Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?
One of the hardest parts about birth is that you have to go more deeply into the pain in order to escape it. To find relief, you have to will yourself to feel more pain. You have to consciously go against every self-protective instinct of your body and mind. Truly, the only way past is through. And it is so hard. IT seems impossible. And with us, it is. But with God, nothing is.
Always, always, the dialogue goes like this, between my flesh and His spirit:
How can I get out of this?
Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done.
Okay, but can’t we just do a little death this time? Like a half-death? Or maybe I can just sacrifice an animal or something?
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
But I don’t want to die. It’s my life! Mine!
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
Lord, help me die. Help us all die. Help us trust that on the other side of death is resurrection far beyond our paltry, beclouded imaginings. And if the resurrection after our “small” deaths on earth is this sweet, how much more the beyond? I lost touch with Alberta and I have no idea if she is still on this Earth or has gone on to be a fresh witness in the cloud. If it’s the latter, I can imagine that subtle knowing smile, the holy silence, were I to ask what heaven was like. Is it good? I heard it’s like here, but way better. Is that true?