It has been my great privilege to be present at four labours: my own two children, and both my grandchildren. In two of those births there were significant complications, though I’m profoundly grateful that both my daughter and granddaughter were eventually safe and well. I have also had the great honour of accompanying people where the outcome has been sadly tragic. Birth is a risky business and whilst usually joyous in outcome, can also sometimes be heart-breaking.
The birth of Jesus is described in the gospels with great brevity – Luke says simply ‘She gave birth to her firstborn, a son’. The reality, however, would not have been swift, and most certainly would not have been painless. We quite rightly concentrate on the extraordinary significance of Jesus’ birth, but the physical reality would have been as daunting and difficult as any delivery. I don’t believe that just because Mary was bearing God’s Son she was therefore given a miraculous, pain-free birth, any more than Jesus in his life was shielded from its harsh realities. It is this that makes the reality of him being Immanuel – God with us – so precious: that he has experienced the mess and muddle of our lives and so can deeply understand us in our struggles and sadness as well as joyous celebrations.
I don’t know whether God’s determination to rescue us meant that Jesus’ birth was guaranteed to have a safe outcome – and no doubt better theologians than me might have opinions on the matter. It seems to me a risky plan all round, so my personal view is that nothing was certain. And from Mary’s prospective, it must have been frightening indeed:
The pains are regular now. I can be in no doubt, my baby boy is on his way. Joseph is pacing, trying to reassure me, but I can see the apprehension in his eyes, though his words are calm. In between the tightenings, ever increasing in their ferocity, I hold on to the angel’s words: that God is with me. But I feel alone, in my private world of pain, hope and fear, cut off even from my husband’s care as I retreat in on myself. I place my hand on my rounded belly, which I hope will soon be empty, though I will miss the feeling of him kicking and the rhythmic tremors of his hiccups which have always made me laugh. I try not to think about the cries I have heard from the birthing tents as a low moan escapes my lips and Joseph kneels beside me and takes my hand. I have never known such pain.
I’m tired now, and afraid. More so even than that day long months ago when I was given this special task. And, just like then, I wonder if I am capable of this momentous responsibility. At this moment, I wish that God had chosen someone else. And hear again those words, holding on to them like a drowning man to a floating log. The Lord is with me, and will soon be with His world.