I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.
—Galatians 4:19 NRSV
We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.
—1 Thessalonians 2:7 NRSV
Most of us, I’m sure, are used to thinking of two comings of Christ: the incarnation, which happened in the midst of history, and the second coming, which we expect at the end of history. But Bernard of Clairvaux in his sermons on Advent suggests there are instead three comings of Christ:
We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men. . . . In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. . . . In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.
What Bernard calls the intermediate coming is always hidden, a coming that the elect find only within themselves while in the depths of contemplation. If Bernard is right, and I’m convinced he is, then we should say that Christ is always coming to us—meekly, secretly, with graceful awkwardness—as we await the finality of his coming and the fullness of his presence. Advent is a time to attune our awareness to Christ in this strange and secretive second coming.
Following Bernard, we should say that Christ comes not so much to us as through us. Christ appears in this sense only through our laboring. He comes again and is present to us and to others just as we bring him to bear in the world. In other words, we are not only children of God; we also have to become theotokoi or mothers of God. To say the same thing another way, we can become like Christ only as we also become like Mary, his mother.
This is what the Apostle Paul models for us in his Letter to the Galatians: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (4:19). Paul labors painfully until the seed of God is formed in them anew. And then, like a nursing mother, he feeds them with the milk of the word until they are mature.
He makes a similar, perhaps even more provocative claim in Romans 8:22–23: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Here, the entire creation joins with the saints as the body of Christ groans in giving birth to new creation. The one who was born of a woman, taken from her as Abel and Cain were taken from Eve, now carries new creation in his womb. Christ himself, like his mother, labors.
In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says that the only true joy in life is to escape from the prison of our false selves. But so long as we are trying to escape from that prison, so long as we are trying to become our true selves, we are only ever false to our deepest calling, living contrary to the primary truth of our being. What we need, instead, is the holy self-forgetfulness made possible by adoration of God and delight in our neighbor. Only when we are freed from thinking about how we can become our own best selves can we actually be ourselves. Attending to and caring for those who need our attention and our care are what awaken us to our true selves.
Paradoxically, then, we must forget ourselves—and even our relationship with God—to truly be ourselves and to truly be one with the love that has loved us into being. We can be (in Bernard’s words) “rapt with divine love” only if we are pregnant with Christ, bearing Christ in our bodies. As the life of Jesus is happening in us, our words and our silences, our expressions and our impressions, our action and our stillness bespeak him and bring his goodness to bear, all without our knowing it or being able to take pride in it. We are, as Paul says, hidden with Christ in God (see Col. 3:2)—from ourselves, as well as from others. Hidden in the womb of God.
It may strike us as strange to talk of becoming one with the love of God, and it may seem out-and-out wrong to talk of forgetting ourselves and our relationship with God. But if it does, I suspect that is because so many of us have come to think of God as just one more person in our lives—the most important person, to be sure, but the first among the many, nonetheless. We imagine that loving God is something different from—and at some level in competition with—loving our neighbor, as if God simply took priority over the neighbor. And we imagine that loving God is easier than loving our neighbor. But contemplation teaches us that God saves us from our illusions precisely by throwing us into the care of and responsibility for our neighbor. In the language of 1 John, it is by loving the neighbor whom we can see that we prove—both in the sense that we body forth a witness to the truth and in the sense that we subject ourselves to the test of its truthfulness—that the life of the God whom we cannot see is alive in us. And contemplation teaches us that God is not one more person in our lives: God is our life. God is the one in whom we live, move, and have our being. We are not merely with Christ; we are in him, and just so, we are in God and God in us.
We are not always giving birth to Christ in others, of course. We are not only like Paul and Mary. We are also often like Anna, bearing witness to Christ’s coming in the world around us in the lives of our friends and enemies. And we are often like Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, providing sanctuary for those who are giving birth to Christ as we ourselves are giving birth to that which prepares the way for Christ to come through them. Sometimes, we are not the ones giving birth but the ones being born. Before we bear Christ for others, others bear us into Christlikeness. We should never forget that we are held in God long before faith in God becomes our own. We believe only because others believed for us, and we go on believing only as others continue to believe for us and in us. We are carried in the womb of others’ faith in such a way that we come to bear others in our faith. Christ is formed in us, and so we become mothers of God. Through our labors—our prayers and our tears, our acts of mercy and our cries for justice—we share in the sufferings of Christ, groaning to give birth to all that God purposes for creation.