[Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of Advent reflections from new mother and theology professor Monica A. Coleman. Read the others here.]
Birth is messy and unpredictable.
It’s hard to remember that when we read Paul’s discussion of becoming a new creation. “Behold, all things are made new!” It sounds like he waved a wand over people and they became Christian. As if declaration of belief alone changes our lives.
That’s not how creation happens. That’s not how we are made. Creating is unpredictable.
Mary knew that. I imagine that she planned to birth her first child at her mother’s home, with the community midwife. Like her mother did; like all the other young women she knew. She assumed she would be upheld and surrounded by the lore and wisdom of other mothers. By the time Joseph saw the baby, Mary would be holding the baby close in a swaddle, nursing or quietly rocking to sleep.
But birth is unpredictable. A rugged ride on a beast alternately kicked by the baby and tussled from underneath by a trotting animal. In a barn. No water, no midwives, no reassurance while she pushed. Dirty hay, bleating sheep, some rags and a food trough. This is where the contractions knocked Mary to her knees. This is where Jesus’ head crowned between Mary’s legs. This is where Mary lost all modesty with singular focus on getting the baby OUT. This is where she pushed through the pain for hours. This is where Mary had to breathe deeply.
There was an umbilical cord that had to be cut; afterbirth to push out; a placenta to bury near whatever piece of homeland that could be found; and a wet, mucus-covered baby to clean up.
It’s hard to believe that Mary praised God then. For the baby she’d move heaven and hell for, yes. But not for the birthing. Surely she, like me and most women I know, questioned God during childbirth. Really God? You can’t think of any other way to get babies here?! No other way besides ripping me almost in two?All birth is bloody, but from Mary’s perspective, Jesus’ birth process had to be a bloody mess.
The tradition sterilizes the birth of Jesus. It shows a serene picture of a low wooden cradle and nurturing parents. The animals look on like stuffed toys, quiet and cuddly. With this image of the incarnation, we lose a lesson from Advent. We pretend as though it is easy to heed God’s call. As if there is the joy of newness without journey or struggle.
Not with Jesus’ birth.
And yet this is the message of the gospel. That we cannot predict who or how God will call us be in the world. And we don’t know how things will end.
Jesus tried to tell this to Nicodemus one night when he asked about the key to authentic living before God.
You must be born again.
We must become new. We must be willing to live in community, and still thrive when found alone. We have to be willing to enter a process that asks us to wait on God, accept ourselves, and journey with others. We must live with the world’s uncertainty and messiness. Like Mary, we have to breathe deeply, have faith and trust the process.
A scholar and activist, Monica A. Coleman is committed to connecting faith and social justice. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. Coleman is currently Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies atClaremont School of Theology.