The Hope for Which We Now Labor


It’s true what mothers say about forgetting the pain of childbirth. My births are now seven and nine-and-a-half years ago and I have to strain to remember the details. Giving birth is a moment we spend countless hours preparing for. It is the culmination of reading and birthing classes, showers, reordering our lives and homes, taking growing baby bump photos, and long months of waiting.

Then suddenly the moment passes and both the miracle and the pain fade into memory instantly. There’s a new life to care for. There’s no time to ruminate on the glories of childbirth. Just moments ago we screamed, “I can’t do this!” in agony but somehow, like millions of mothers before us, we did.

This time of year we talk a lot about birth. We read and sing about it, talk about it at parties, reorder our lives and homes with decorations celebrating it, look at photos and miniatures of the place of the birth, and spend the long month of Advent waiting for the day of birth to arrive. Then suddenly the moment passes and both the miracle and the pain fade into memory instantly. We spend a month pregnant with the anticipation of the Savior’s imminent arrival.

There’s no time to ruminate on the glories of his actual coming. Life rages on and we forget the incarnation means God actually lived among us, that Jesus didn’t just go from angelic baby in a manger to resurrection. In between he cried out to the Father in agony: “I can’t do this!” and asked for the cup to pass from him. He lived in the pain with us. He still does.

Reading Lauren Winner’s “Wearing God” right before Advent this year, had me thinking more literally than metaphorically about birth. I squirmed uncomfortably, as I am sure others do when they hear the graphic details of others’ birth stories, when I imagined Jesus’ birth truly for the first time in my life: “As the contractions pick up, Jesus would sense that he was being squeezed. His head helps stretch Mary’s cervix open.”

“Do I really want a God with a body?” Winner asks. “Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?” It’s easier to hold Jesus at arm’s length, to live a sanitized version of Christmas. If he peacefully slipped into the world one silent night long ago, I can relegate him to the corners of my life, packed away with the manger scenes to be brought out once a year.

If I acknowledge the reality that he violently writhed his way into this dirty world, that he “plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony” hours before his death in the garden (Mark 14:33, The Message)—then I need to let him into the daily details of my life. I need to acknowledge that Jesus lived as I lived, that he doesn’t live in some theoretical heavenly reality but in our daily reality that is pain and glory, miracle and doubt all tied together.

I have collected nativity scenes as long as I can remember, enamored by the peaceful scene after Jesus’ birth and the way different traditions and cultures depict it. I added a clay Madonna to the mix this year, a South Asian mother cradling her newborn child with a tiny candle inside. As I placed it on the table, I practiced a new meditation. I took a few moments to imagine the pain and fear of that night—the rejection Mary must have felt, the uncertainty that she and her child would live, and the shame she still bore as an unwed mother. I tried to remember my long forgotten birth pain and easily remembered the more recent pangs of the new me being birthed through the anxieties and trials of the past year of life.

“The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing within us.” —Romans 8.22, The Message

My spiritual practice of imagining a not-so-silent night this year brings a strange mixture of comfort and unsettledness. And I think it’s in that tension that Christmas should live, as Jesus’ life was lived, as our lives are lived. I want a God with a body. I want a God who knows what it is to live through birth pangs and to live through loss and death pains.

Each time I glance toward the nativity this year, I remind myself that it’s true what mothers say about forgetting the pain of childbirth. One day we will know the glory that lives on the other side of what the Spirit continues to arouse in us. One day we will hold the promise we wait for, the hope for which we now labor.