December 23, 2012
When my mother gave birth to me, she broke her water very early in labor. The doctors at the time said that this meant I would be a “dry birth”, without sufficient amniotic fluid to ease the delivery. Fearing the delivery would be too traumatic and dangerous, they advised a cesarean section, and I came into the world through the careful hands of an obstetric surgeon. It turned out fine, although the first thing I did upon entering the world was sneeze.
This Christmas feels like a dry birth to me. My spiritual waters have been drained. I am pushing and pushing, and nothing is happening. I’m in pain. I need help.
I suspect that I am not alone.
In interpreting this week’s Gospel reading, I am happy and relieved to have the help of Biblical scholar Dr. Renita J. Weem’s marvelous book Showing Mary: How Women can Share Prayers, Wisdom, and the Blessings of God (2002). Dr. Weem’s meditation on the first chapter of Luke, from the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary’s visit with her kinswoman Elizabeth, is both an intellectual work and an act of generosity. Re-reading it was like finding a kindly, wise midwife.
First, Dr. Weems points out that – even though Mary’s pregnancy heralded joy to the world – the visit from the angel Gabriel would certainly have sent Mary into crisis. Her pregnancy occurred during the year-long engagement period prior to sexual consummation of her marriage with Joseph:
Three disasters were at hand: First, her family’s honor was at stake if news got out that she had gotten herself pregnant by someone other than her husband … Second, her husband-to-be would be humiliated and dishonored, and any rash acts on his part to restore his honor would be tolerated and justified by the community. Third and finally, the very life of the bride-to-be was at stake. She deserved to be stoned to death (99).
The blessed event of the Savior’s birth, then, was far more emotionally complex than we would know from the bucolic dioramas we see in churches. As her young body was getting ready to bring life into the world, Mary was facing the very real possibility of death. Mary, too, needed help.
For those of us who, like Mary, are in crisis, Dr. Weems has some very warm and reassuring words:
… you are more prepared than even you know. You’re more emotionally capable of handling this than you think. You know more than you think you know, even though it doesn’t feel like it right this moment as you absorb the shock of the news. You’re stronger than you think you are. You’ve got more going for you than you think. You’ve gone through all the tiny and large metamorphoses of the past years to get you ready for what you’re now facing (38).
Thank you. I needed that.
Second, Dr. Weems states that the angel Gabriel pointed the way to the very help that Mary needed: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month” (Luke 1:36). Mary subsequently made her way to her kinswoman’s house “in haste”. Dr. Weems has more wise words for those of us in need of a kinswoman (or man):
No matter how disturbing the news, no matter how calamitous the new beginning, God does not leave you along to fit your life back together. Someone else has gone through or is going through what you’re experiencing. You are not the first to have your plans dashed to the ground. You are not the first to wake up one morning to find your soul on the spin cycle. You are not the first to start over (134).
We are not alone. Amen.
Like Mary, there are many people these days before Christmas that are struggling. We are trying to bring light and life into the world while we are simultaneously staring down death wherever we turn. It will not be an easy birth this year, bringing the Christ child into the world as it now stands. Luckily, as Dr. Weems says, we are more than we think we are, and we are not alone. We can get through this together.
Thank you, Dr. Weems.