“Welcome! all Wonders in one sight! Eternity shut in a span. Summer in winter, day in night. Heaven in earth, and God in man. Great little one! whose all-embracing birth lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav'n to earth” (Richard Crashaw, 1613-1649).
Approaching Jesus’ nativity, we pause. Birth is risky. Here, we’ll connect that risk with last month’s column describing my calling as pastor. Grieving parents have called me to sorrow with them for their children.
A mother handed me her full-term baby. He died in her womb just before delivery. “Pastor, please hold our son. Please pray.” What sadness.
Another child, early in pregnancy, spared from death by high-tech surgery in the womb, came to full-term -- only to die four days after birth. “Pastor, lead the funeral service.”
Doctors wanted to abort Martha Sue, anencephalic in the womb. I connected her parents with then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. They chose to continue her pregnancy. Martha Sue died four days after birth. Later, her parents expressed gratitude -- they had loved her as well as they could for as long as they had her.
Very early one morning, the dreaded knock came. Twenty-one-year old soldier Brad had been killed in Iraq. What grief for Brad’s father, mother and sister.
Several hundred gathered in support at the Arlington Cemetery memorial service. Undersecretary of the Army Brownlee approached the seated family, knelt and presented a flag: “On behalf of a grateful nation…” What a grand tradition. I too knelt before them: “I do not have a flag to give you. I do have the gospel. God has loved Brad so much he gave his only begotten Son for Brad. In this time of profound sorrow, you have the hope of heaven through the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
During one of Brad’s memorials, another father and mother sat in the pews wondering if the next funeral would be for their anorexic 20-year-old. “Pastor, help us. Our daughter needs very expensive treatment.” I prayed with them. I gathered church leaders. That afternoon, I gave the parents a check for multiple tens of thousands of dollars. That daughter lives.
A 16-year old was found dead, hanging. Was it suicide or murder? They didn’t yet know it was murder. “Pastor, help.”
Why such peril?
After our original parents rebelled, God spoke to our first mother: “I will greatly increase (literally, “increasing I will increase”) your pains.” Ouch. This is not singular “pain” but plural. And “pains” is more than physical pain. It may be grief, trouble, distress or sorrow.
When would her pains be increased? “In childbearing.” This phrase is used to describe a woman's pain, trouble, sorrow, distress that can be amplified in: menstruation, conception (at the “wrong time” or an inability to conceive), pregnancy (morning sickness, discomfort, life threatening problems, miscarriage, stillbirth), delivery, menopause. What vigor women need.
God continues: “With pain, you will give birth to children.” The usual Biblical focus with this phrase is delivery. For example, 1 Chron. 4:9 - “His mother had named him Jabez, (‘Jabez’ is Hebrew for ‘pain’) saying, "I gave birth to him in pain.” But this phrase is also used to describe the grief, trouble, distress and sorrow of parenting.
Ah, the risk of birth.
There is much more
We are also called to turn the page to the grandeur of birth -- particularly one Birth. “Now let us be merry, put sorrow away: our Savior, Christ Jesus, was born on this day” (1661 carol, “A Virgin Unspotted”).
Consider Luci Shaw (1928 -), a 90-year old poet, seeking to “speak to a culture that finds it hard to listen.” In the early 1970’s, words from her book, “The Risk of Birth,” captivated me -- especially, “Mary’s Song” -- still my favorite Advent poem. See what you think:
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast/ keep warm this small hot naked star/ fallen to my arms. (Rest. . ./ you who have had so far/ to come.) Now nearness satisfies/ the body of God/ sweetly. Quiet he lies/ whose vigor hurled/ a universe. He sleeps/ whose eyelids have not closed before. / His breath (so slight it seems/ no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps to sprout a world. / Charmed by doves’ voices, the whisper of straw, / he dreams, /hearing no music from his other spheres. / Breath, mouth, ears, eyes/ he is curtailed/ who overflowed all skies, / all years. / Older than eternity, now he/ is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed to my poor planet, caught that I might be free, / blind in my womb to know my darkness ended, / brought to this birth/ for me to be newborn, / and for him to see me mended/ I must see him torn.
Luci is right -- birth is risky. At Christmas, we stand in awe. God -- God! -- risked birth. The Word made Flesh became an “infant” (“in” – “not capable of” + “fant” – “speech”)! He came to die so many would live! Unfathomable.
Falling and rising
G.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936) wrote: In dread of such falling and failing/The fallen angels fell…/But too deep for their sight to scan, /outrushing the fall of man/Is the height of the fall of God. /Glory to God in the Lowest. Jesus, you came so ludicrously low!
But, friend, realize Jesus’ birth also makes life risky for us. Meeting infant Jesus in the Temple, Simeon declared (Luke 2:34,35): “Behold, this child is appointed (“specially designated,” “to be laid down,” -- the word also used when he was "laid" in the manger and in his tomb) for the fall and rising of many…so that thoughts (the ongoing dialogues) from many hearts may be revealed.”
Let’s hear Simeon! Although we unwrap Christmas presents, Christmas uncovers our hearts. If our preconceptions contradict God’s appointed, Jesus, we fall with the fallen angels. Instead, friend, risking new birth through him, let’s rise with him. Merry Christmas!