The Liturgical Turn: Toward a Theology of Birth / An Advent Meditation

Nativity-rublev Joseph.  I’ve always found him extremely fascinating.  I guess that’s partly due to the fact that we’re told so little about him.  We know he was incredibly obedient to God.  He was present for Mary’s pregnancy, Jesus’ birth and childhood, but once Jesus grows up, he’s strangely absent.  The traditional reason is that he simply passed away.  Other renderings have him moving on to another wife and having other children in order to keep Mary pure.  Or perhaps in the end, his own doubt about the truthfulness of the virgin birth caught up with him.  Even in iconography, Joseph is sometimes rendered as a deeply troubled soul.  Rublev’s version of The Nativity has Joseph being fed lies about Mary’s virginity by Satan, here depicted as a withered old man.  We don’t why, but we know that he doesn’t play much of a role in the later part of Jesus’ life. 

But what role did he play in Jesus’ early life; specifically in the beginning?  As I was meditating on the story of the first Advent, I was struck by what’s left unsaid within the birth narrative.  Particularly, the lack of detail about the birth itself.  Now I admit that probably is best left unsaid.  Birth is messy, painful, and doesn’t really make for good storytelling.  So the silence comes at no surprise.   But we do know where. We know that Jesus was born in a place where animals are keep.  This raises the question in my mind about who else was present?  Was it simply Mary and Joseph?  What about midwives?  There’s one apocryphal story that puts a midwife named Salome on the scene.  But who knows?

Even if Joseph was able to find a midwife at the last minute, and one that would be willing to follow him to a cave, Joseph would still be much more involved in the Mary’s labor and delivery than most fathers today.  Contrast Joseph’s story with the fact that most fathers aren’t usually even present at the moment of birth of their children.  That’s usually because they would either choose to stay in the waiting room until the OB tells them it’s all over, or because they aren’t permitted in the delivery room due to hospital policy (in recent years these policies have relaxed considerably).  I think this is where my fondness for Joseph lies. 

I’m the father of four children, two of which were born at home, one in a birthing center, and one in the hospital.  My wife, herself a certified Doula, delivered all four “naturally.” I was her labor coach for all of them.  In our house, pregnancy and birth is a passion, not just for our own, but other mothers as well. We have a passion for helping women labor well.  Laboring well involves many factors.  One factor that  contributes to this is the husband’s involvement.  

Birth is a time of great silence and separation.  What women experience cannot be shared by or communicated to men.  We can’t even pretend to understand labor pain. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be a faithful, supporting presence. 

Nor can we understand the immense rush of joy (oxitocin) that a woman experiences when she holds her seconds-born child in her arms.  That, we can only watch in amazement. 

Since there were no medical lawyers to conjure up absurd laws keeping Joseph waiting outside, I hope Joseph was fully involved in supporting Mary as she brought forth the savior of the world.  Unfortunately we aren’t are given any details.  Had we been, I believe that the church wouldn’t be so anemic in it’s theology of birth.  

What I mean is this: the church and her theologians have had a lot of great things to say about life, death, contraception, abortion, sex, IVF, etc.  We have the language and the ethics for making babies, not killing them, and helping them die well when they’ve grown old.  However, the church is completely silent about the nine months after conception, and even more (if that’s possible) silent about the hours of labor leading to the moment of birth. 

I believe this silence has been a major reason for the medicalization of the birth.  Now, before I get a whole bunch of hateful comments, let me explain that I’m not against “hospital births” as opposed to “home births.”  My wife and I are outspoken advocates for the latter, but we have seen and experienced the necessity of the former.  Where I believe our society is failing women (and their partners) is in making them believe in the normalcy of medicine’s role in birth.   In the last few years, the number one reason for hospital admittance has been labor and delivery.  The problem, however, is that pregnancy is not a sickness that needs to be cured.  It is not a disease, nor is the pain that is experienced a suffering that needs to be remedied. 

Most of all, under “low risk” circumstances, labor and delivery is not a process that needs intervention.  There are times when intervention is needed, and I’m glad that medicine can do what it can do, and do it well.  But too often the “cascade of interventions” happens unnecessarily.  But doctors and hospitals work on a time-table that doesn’t always sync with nature's processes. Moreover, they are the ones who believe they wield ultimate power and have most fully bought into modernity’s ideology of complete control. 

Again, I’m grateful for hospitals, but one of the main reasons that I personally am an advocate for  homebirths, in particular, is the community that it allows to be created.  Birth is an incredibly intimate experience and one which revolves completely around the needs of the mother.  In our experience, Laura had complete control over everything.  The few of us that were present, by her own invitation, were able to give her full support, love, and comfort. Most of all, since I was able to play an important role in her process, I believe our marriage is stronger because  of it.   

There’s more that needs to be said on this topic and I’m currently working on a series of essays that I hope will begin to break the church’s silence on the issue.  The church needs a theology of birth.  The church needs to find a language that helps women labor well.  It needs this not because I want most women to have homebirths.  That’s not the ultimate goal.  But because birth is an important moment in a woman’s life, and the church has no idea what role it plays in her discipleship.  Birth is a milestone in a couple’s marriage, and the church lacks a theology of marriage strong enough to give voice to the husband’s role in the process.   

Most of all, because God himself “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.”  What that means is that pregnancy, labor, and delivery have been redeemed.  {That which is not assumed is not sanctified}

This is why I wish the Bible would have been more detailed, especially about Joseph.  I can speculate that Joseph would have set the example for husbands to follow in how to support his wife while she gives birth.  This Advent season, apart from Christ, Joseph is the one character who has most caught my attention.

And now a word from Monty Python:

 

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  • http://purejoybirth.com Meg

    I’m an acquaintance of Laura’s, and I think a lot about how birth figures into theology. It is such a perfect analogy for so many things – the way it begins (conception), waiting (pregnancy), pain and difficulty (birth), and finally, joy (the baby). It is an example of how pain leads to triumph, the virtue of patience, the ecstasy of the end through perseverance, and even the role of supportive and encouraging friends. After my experiences as a doula, I see how many times we need doulas in other parts of our life – in parenting, job changes, and spiritual growth. Taking short-cuts in birth (induction, c-section) is so much like taking short-cuts in life – they lead to prematurity and pain, and rarely pay off.
    I think men underestimate their ability to speak about birth. The reflections of fathers like you and my husband, who have walked through labor and birth with their wives, are very valuable. I respect so much the role that supportive and knowledgeable fathers have in the birth of their children.

  • Amy

    I appreciate that the writer gives so much respect to birth and has enjoyed his role in the births of his children. From what I understand of the culture into which Jesus was born, I would very much doubt if Joseph was present at all. Almost certainly, ladies in Bethlehem would have been summoned and would have assisted Mary in the delivery. Joseph would have been assigned his rightful place outside the birthing chamber. Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown. Anyone familar with mideast culture knows that his family would have to have shown some kind of hospitality to him and Mary. In the telling of the birth of Jesus we have assumed much. We don’t know where it was–it just wasn’t in the guest quarters. It was near a manger which may have been in the bottom floor of Joseph’s relative’s home, for all we know. We also do not know how long it was before Mary went into labor. It may have been many weeks because all it says is that while they were there the time for birth came. In our current model, the role of the husband is to be beside his laboring wife. We can’t assume that is the only good place because many cultures have decided that labor and birth are best left to the women thereby preserving some modesty and reverence for the women. We can’t say these ideas are wrong, just different. Maybe Joseph was out earning income or buying supplies for his family. We can conjecture. We can imagine. We will most likely interprete things according to our cultural understanding and get some things right and some things wrong. I wonder why there are so few details in the gospel accounts.
    I like the author’s idea that there needs to be a theology of birth. There is so much symbolism to appreciate and there is no sweeter miracle on earth. Birth is a unique experience in which both great pain and great joy embrace. A newborn baby is a precious gift straight from God’s hand to our arms.

  • http://marikablogs.blogspot.com Marika

    Eric Auerbach writes beautifully about the lack of narrative detail in the biblical accounts, and argues that the very absence of detailed information about what people were thinking or feeling or doing draws us into the biblical narrative: the information isn’t there, so we have to provide it ourselves, we get drawm into the story and have to engage imaginatively with it. I think you’re right, Amy, that it’s unlikely that Joseph was particularly involved with the birth: this was a culture which viewed women’s blood as deeply unclean, remember. I feel like the empty spaces that invite us to fill in our own details are probably theologically richer and more open to feminist rereadings than a blow-by-blow account would have been.

  • Sue

    To me this essay is indicative of the absurdity of the mind-set trapped in the Biblical world-view. As though we can even begin to understand the situation re child-birth and the raising of children altogether via speculations re what may or may not have happened when Jesus was born.
    I would suggest that the current situation has been formed by the imperatives of patriarchal religion and culture altogether.Both of which have always sought to control the natural world altogether.
    A woman’s body expresses the indivisible unity of manifest existence altogether. In that sense woman’s body IS the world.
    A better place to start would be to seriously consider the deep cultural significance of the European witch burnings.
    Such was part of process whereby the ancient culture of the Goddess was finally destroyed. The origins and cultural consequences is explained in the book The Alphabet Versus The Goddess http://www.alphabetvsgoddess.com
    There has also been much insight gained by recent scholarship into what Joseph Chilton Pearce called the “monstrous misunderstanding” about babies, children and our bodies altogether. Pearce was very passionate this very important topic. Two of his seminal books are The Magical Child, and Evolution’s End. Books in which he points out that our culture altogether systematically undermines the intrinsic psycho-biological intelligence of our bodies.
    Other notable books and work are Immaculate Deception by Suzanne Arms at: http://www.suzannearms.com/AboutSuzanne
    Birth Without Violence by Frederic Leboyer (1975). A book which punctured the then common myth/lie that babies are incapable of feeling anything. By contrast Leboyer pointed out that they are unguarded feeling,even in the womb and from the moment they are born. Pearce also elaborates on this terrible myth/lie.
    Other authors, books and references which deal with this monstrous misunderstanding are:
    Alice Miller at: http://www.alice-miller.com/index_en.php
    Philip Greven via his book Spare the Child
    And this interesting essay re a recent popular film.
    http://primalpage.com/gibson.htm
    Also the work of Morris Berman via his book Coming To Our Senses.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/sancrucensiswordpresscom Sancrucensis.wordpress.com

    “Birth is messy, painful, and doesn’t really make for good storytelling.” Well, usually it is, but the traditional view of the virgin birth is that it wasn’t; Mary’s virginity was preserved “in partu” i.e. Jesus came forth from the womb without opening it.

  • http://www.urbanedgehomes.com.au/ Building a house

    It is not easy how baby delivered. It comes from the mother’s womb and so much painful from the mother. That example really feels so much pain from the time that the baby was born. The birth of ones, is a gift from God which we really keep and love it until it grows.

  • http://subversiveword.com SubversiveWord

    We have experienced some difficult health situations recently, and discovered that many Christians do not have a very deep understanding of pain. I found Peter Kreeft’s Suffering to be a valuable help in this regard.
    The present cultural narrative at least in the US seems to be that pain is evil in every case. As Christians, people of the cross, it seems that we should be better able to value painful experiences such as pregnancy and childbirth. Thanks for your thoughtful article.