In your nativity scene at home, the one stuck nicely into a cozy barn and surrounded by soft warm lights on your mantel or hutch, the one with the gold outlining or with the serene appearance, with the baby lying in the manger and the parents standing or kneeling chastely beside it. Yeah, that’s the one.
It’s not real, you know. It’s not real life.
Most pastors and priests are men, so when they tell of the messy story of that day, the story that forever defines our lives even if you don’t think so, they talk about the dirty stable. They talk about the smells and the animals surrounding the birth and the rude innkeeper and they talk about the beauty and reverent birth of the Christ-child. But oftentimes men can miss the realness of this day. There’s a disconnect to the entire birth experience because men don’t give birth, and try as they might, there will forever be a disconnect.
I, too, have never given birth. I have three kids who are all adopted and while there’s nothing I would love more in this life than to have birthed those three kids, I cherish their stories of origin and their first families. So, perhaps I also am not the best person, the most educated person, or the most experienced woman to present this area of the Christmas story, but I’m going to give it a try.
A dear friend of mine was pregnant with her third baby, and as she neared the end of her pregnancy she called to ask if I could be a part of the birth and help care for her other two children. She was having a home birth and when I arrived she was already in the birthing tub. The room was quiet, still, warm but not too warm, candles were lit, the curtains were drawn, and in the midst of overwhelming pain through each contraction, the room was surrounded by peace. Three experienced midwives gently and softly coached her through each pressure-filled contraction, speaking grace and peace over her. Her husband knelt beside the tub, offering her kind words filled with love and awe, giving her cold beverages and being the exact supportive team she needed.
And, when the time came to do what her body was created exactly to do, she pushed. She pushed and stopped and breathed and moaned and pushed and I could see the babe crowning and pushed and in that moment I experienced a deep longing to do what I will never do, but am created to do. In that moment I understood a deeper reality that I hadn’t seen as clearly before. I saw a blending of heaven and earth. I saw the lines between the sacred and the earthly mingle, become one, the line blurred into one. Where the holy and heavenly and the raw and earthly connected and I couldn’t tell them apart anymore.
And as she pushed out the life her body had been sustaining and growing these past 10 months, and as we waited, anticipating the deep throaty cry, I saw how messy this life-being-born process truly is. Where the glowing pregnancy gives way to aching muscles and sore backs, to sleepless nights because of a huge belly, to giving birth, to finding out your baby didn’t make it, your baby was born with cystic fibrosis or Down Syndrome, your baby is healthy, your baby is sick, your baby isn’t breathing, your baby is still perfect. All this waiting and hoping to hear the deep, loud, healthy cry of your sweet child who just came from you, and at that moment we can began to understand a bit of the anxiety, the pain, the fear, the loneliness, the innate, that Mary was feeling.
Mary was considered a whore by her people because of being pregnant out of wedlock. The Bible puts it nicely for us when we read there was no room in the inn. But that was absurd. That was unheard of. Even if there was physically no room left for them, not one ounce of space available, anyone in that culture would have made room and space for a family member who was about to give birth. But she was a shameful mark on their highly religious way of living and keeping up their godly appearance. So they said no. We aren’t sure how many homes Mary and Joseph knocked on before coming to the last family’s home. But I can imagine, just as I’m sure many mothers can as well, that when this man, this innkeeper, saw Mary and took enough pity on her to offer her his damp, dark cave of a stable, she looked to Joseph and said “yes, yes we’ll take it.”
Can you imagine her reaching down, her eyes wide with fear as she feels the inevitable, as she feels the life her body created making it’s way down the birth canal? Do you think she was feeling pleased, or hopeful, or worthy at that moment to give birth to the Messiah, to God’s own Son, in a busy street with people passing by? I’m sure the mom-guilt hit her hard, right there, feeling like she’d never measure up, feeling like a failure right off the bat.
But with her legs shut tight, leaning against the man God gave her to be who she needed, she moved up the hill, away from the lamps burning in the closed homes, up to a lonely place where no midwives, doctors or her mother were. Crouching down, opening herself up to allow her body to experience what God created woman to do, she allowed God to wipe any guilt or shame away and pushed and moaned and sweated and grew faint and pushed and with blood and water and feces and tearing and excruciating pain mixed with peace and rightness and beauty and hope, and the Christ-child was born. A deep, loud scream pierced the night sky, a scream that brought about uncontrollable laughter and tears and hope and all things were to be made right.
The holy, the heavenly, the line that separates from the raw and earthly became blurred in that moment and from that moment on. The heavenly, the God who creates, who loves, who is so separate and above us became a part of the raw earthly through a birth canal. God in flesh who dwelt among God’s very created, who humbled Godself, started life through the pain and trauma and beauty and messiness of birth. Birth that many women have experienced pushing out and sustaining life.
Women can tell this part of the story this Christmas, the glimpse behind the veil, the life lived in the in-between of the stuff of God.
There is a story on your lips, isn’t there, mama? of how you saw the face of God in the midst of fear or pain or joy and understood, really understood, Mary, not kneeling chastely beside a clean manger refraining from touching her babe, just moments after birth but instead, sore and exhilarated, weary and pressing a sleepy, wrinkled newborn to her breasts, treasuring every moment in her heart, marveling not only at his very presence but at her own strength, how surrender and letting go is true work, tucking every sight and smell and smack of his lips into her own marrow.
God, Incarnate, Word made flesh, born of a woman and the Holy Spirit.
— Sarah Bessey
This Christmas, may you begin to see the line that separates the earthly from the heavenly blurred. In the midst of waiting, of Advent, of the hurts and pains and anger and tears and sickness and death and messy and no easy answers, may we learn to allow the transforming work of Jesus Christ, who born from the messiness and into the messy, bring hope and comfort to us this Christmas.
Bethany Cseh is co-pastor of Catalyst Church in Arcata.