As it is Christmas, I have been thinking about childbirth. Having been present at the birth of both of my children I can testify that in optimal conditions childbirth is a great mess of blood, water, pain, and poop. The conditions at Christ’s birth would likely not have been optimal: a dirty stable, chock full of the sort of substances you expect in a dirty stable, on a cold night in a backward country, even by first century AD standards. We don’t know Mary’s age, but we tend to think that she was young and that she was far away from family and friends when she gave birth. This young mother, as do all mothers, put herself at great risk for her child.
At the University of Houston Digital History site, they note that in the 17th and 18th centuries in the US between 1 and 1.5 percent of all births ended in the death of the mother. Anne Bradstreet wrote, in her poem “Before the Birth of One of Her Children”:
How soon, my Dear, death may thy steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend
Death has been a reality for mothers throughout the centuries. Even today, according to Wikipedia, 11 of every 100,000 women giving birth in America will die as a result. Common causes today include bacterial infections, preclampsia, obstetrical hemorrhages, ectopic pregnancies, sepsis, and embolisms. Women who give birth all enter into the valley of death.
Birth and the gory details involved have been a source of horrified fascination for men through the years, particularly as a symbol of death. To take two recent science-fiction examples, the birth of the alien from John Hurt’s chest and the gaping maw in the abdomen of the scientist in the Thing both represent a violation because, amongst other reasons, they take the female experience and slap it on men. In both cases, it is fatal. If the womb is symbolic of new life, it is equally symbolic (in the western canon) of death, especially as we tend to smush it together with sex. After all, according to the Proverbs, the house of the sexually promiscuous woman is the path to hell.
Christ came into this earth through the body of Mary. He was pushed out, likely breaking the flesh of his mother, pulling a bag of her blood behind him. No matter how you picture his conception, it was easier, cleaner, and more heavenly than his birth. It was this birth that made him mortal, that made him one of us. Covered in blood and effluvia, Christ entered our realm to redeem it via the same.
My favorite passage regarding the atonement and its meaning comes from a discussion that God is having with Adam and Eve just after the Fall in the Pearl of Great Price. While explaining the why of the Atonement, God gives us a peek into the how:
That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory;
For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified; (Moses 6:59-60)
By blood, water, and Spirit, Christ entered this world, as do we all. By blood, water, and Spirit, He gave us all the opportunity to enter a new life, to be born again. We don’t have to crawl back into our mothers because Christ’s womb is both metaphorical and sufficient. Christ was born, the Son, that he might know how to succor us in our infirmities, that he might bleed, sweat, and suffer, that his mortality might activate our immortality. Mary gave Christ his mortality, born of her mortality, her blood, water, and spirit, that these things might come to pass.
If this week, this coming day, is to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, pure and holy, let’s pause a moment and praise the woman who risked her life for that birth and all those women who emulate both Madonna and child to this day.