John 1: 1-14
December 25, 2011
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I don’t know if it’s just babies that I grow in my belly or if it’s all babies everywhere, but the two times I’ve been pregnant, I’ve been amazed that they never seem to want to kick and move when I want them to. I’ll feel a series of big movements and call my husband and toddler to “come quick!” so they can feel the baby move….but the second someone else’s hand touches my belly, the baby goes still. I sit there for a moment willing the baby to move, sometimes even talking to my belly, “Come on, baby, give another kick for Daddy.” But it never works.
One of the strangest things about being pregnant is being constantly reminded that you are sharing your body with another, separate human being. It seems that I should be able to will my belly to move because it’s my belly. But the creature that’s inside of me is not me. The baby is his own person, even in this not-yet-born state. There is nothing I can do to control him. I just have to share my space.
My two pregnancies have been very similar, physically. The same aches and quirks. The babies have been positioned the same way so the movements even feel the same to me. But emotionally and psychologically, I have experienced these pregnancies very differently. With my first pregnancy, I was constantly excited and filled with awe and I felt very strong as I pondered my body’s ability to create new life.
With this second pregnancy, I have often felt irritated at the inconveniences of being pregnant. I’ve been more exhausted – not in a “I’m sleepy and want a nap” way, but in a “I don’t want to be pregnant anymore. I don’t want to share my body anymore” way. I am weary of sharing myself. I am tired of devoting so much space and energy to someone else. I’m not proud that I feel this way and, ultimately, I’d do it all over again – don’t get me wrong. But this time around I just find myself wishing that my body were my own again.
Our almost-two-year-old son is learning about his body these days. He’s learning how to respect other people’s bodies – or trying to. David and I sound like broken records, saying, “M, I don’t like it when you hit my body. Please give me a hug instead,” all day long. He’s also learning that he can draw boundaries around his own body. The other day I heard him playing with his dad and laughing hysterically in the other room. Then his little toddler voice said, “No! I need a little space!” and David immediately stopped tickling him and said, “Okay, you need a little space. Thanks for telling me.”
I’m pretty sure that M knows the phrase, “I need a little space” because he hears me say it so often these days. The closer I come to this upcoming birth, the more I feel that there is so little of me to go around. I find myself wanting to retreat – to claim space for myself and for this baby.
I need a little space to reconnect with myself, to connect with the Divine, to prepare for the difficult work of birth.
As aspect of birth that is frequently overlooked in our society is that birth matters not just to the baby being born, but to the parents who are born at that same moment. The way in which a woman gives birth – the support she is given, the options she has, the respect she feels – those things all contribute to her emotional state at that crucial moment of birth.
And in that moment – whether it’s the baby being handed to her and put to her breast or the baby being whisked away for testing or her being unconscious because she’s had an emergency surgery – in that moment, she becomes a mother. That moment can never be re-done. And the other partner, if there is one, becomes a parent, too. In that instant, a line is drawn. A new person – the mother or father of that particular child – is born.
It makes me wonder, of course, about the birth of Jesus.
It makes me ponder what it felt like for Mary and Joseph when they became Mother and Father to that particular child. We usually see scenes of Mary and Joseph, simply yet cleanly dressed, kneeling or standing beside the manger-bed. Jesus is wrapped in a tidy blanket and Mary looks on adoringly – sometimes with her hands folded in a simple prayer. It is the gaze of a woman who is politely grateful for a new set of china or is posing for a photographer.
It is not the gaze of a woman who has just given birth.
Where is the blood? Where is the mess? Where are the gallons of sweat pouring off of Mary’s brow? For that matter, why is everyone wearing clothes? And who in their right mind would lay a newborn down into a bed of hay? Surely not a new mother.
If I had tried to do that when my son was born, my husband surely would have snatched him up and held him tightly to his chest. You don’t just down lay a newborn down like that. Everything within you wants to hold on tightly – to wonder, to ponder, to gaze, to love, to stand amazed in the presence of something so holy as this moment of new life.
To be fair to the thousands of artists over the years that have depicted the birth of Christ – I’m fairly sure most of them were men who, due to cultural norms, never had the opportunity to see a birth or to see how a mother becomes a mother. We are fortunate to live in a time where men are no longer banned from their right to be present as their new Father-selves are born.
As we move from the season of Advent to the season of Christmas, we have arrived at the point in our stories where it’s time for all of us to give birth.
I said a few weeks ago that if you come to Christmas and you’re exhausted, you haven’t done Advent right. Advent has been a time for waiting – for preparing space. Space for reconnecting with ourselves, for connecting with the Divine, space for getting ready for the work of birth. As we’ve done so, we’ve prepared ourselves not only for the birth of Christ but also for our own births.
Because we are all – all of us – called upon by God to give birth to Jesus Christ again this year.
We are given the distinct honor of bringing the Christ Child into the world again and again. We are allowed to re-birth ourselves as we do so – celebrating the moment when we each become mother or father to the Eternal Christ in our midst.
The stories we typically think of when we tell the story of Jesus’s birth are those from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark has no birth story. John has a birth story – we just heard it – but it’s not immediately recognizable as the birth.
There is no stable, no star overhead, no cast of characters – not even Mary and Joseph. Instead, we have this cosmic story of Christ’s birth. John artfully weaves the larger story for us – not the story of how a particular boy-child was born to a particular woman and man – but the larger story of how the Eternal Spirit of Christ is born to all of us. Instead of Mary and Joseph, we have the cosmic dust of creation. Instead of a human mother’s labor pains, we have the Word – the Logos – of God breathing forth Christ into creation. We have an image of Christ existing before and between and outside of time.
And if Christ exists in all these places and spaces and times, then surely Christ is with us here and now.
The stories of Matthew and Luke tell us why the birth of Jesus of Nazareth mattered to people living in first-century Palestine. The prologue to the gospel of John tells us why the birth of Christ matters to all of us – those who lived before the time of Jesus, those who knew him in the flesh, and those of us who celebrate Christ’s eternal presence forevermore.
When I ponder the way I’ve been grumbling this pregnancy, I feel pretty embarrassed. I cringe when I hear myself telling my toddler that I can’t pick him up right now because “I need a little space.” I suppose I should be more gentle with myself – we all should, right? But I do wonder where I’ve gotten this idea that my body belongs to me.
I mean, yes, of course, it belongs to me and not to someone else. I don’t meant to insinuate that you should ever let other people do things to your body that you don’t want to have done, of course.
But, ultimately, this body belongs to God.
I am the caretaker of this particular body and it is important that I care for myself well because I’ve been entrusted with the honor of being me. But my body – like the rest of me – was not created and born of me. I was created and born of God. This means that I have a responsibility to some Holy force beyond myself.
It also means I have the ability to call upon strength that goes beyond what I can immediately see and perceive. If I do not belong only to myself then I am also reminded that I am never alone. The Holy Presence always exists within and beyond me – comforting and strengthening me in times of joy and sorrow.
As we move from Advent into Christmas we move from a time of waiting to a time of action. The birth of Christ is here – and Mary is not going to be the one doing all the work this time around. We are, all of us, called to give birth to Christ at this moment in time. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter if you’ve given birth to babies ten times or none at all. We are all called to birth Christ.
We are called to prepare room for Christ. – to make space in our lives for this Holy Mystery which is coming again into our world. To ponder the new life growing inside of us.
We are called to labor – to move with each increasingly-difficult contraction towards the moment of birth. To draw on the wisdom of those who have gone before us. To surround ourselves with those who will respect and support our important work.
We are called to surrender – to turn ourselves over to a force larger than ourselves. Midwife Ina May Gaskin calls this instinct in birthing women getting in touch with their “monkey self” – that version of yourself which knows instinctively just what to do in order to bring a child into the world. We are called to surrender to the doubt, the fear, the pain, the ecstatic joy as we bring Christ to the world.
We are called to greet – to open our arms to the Holy being born at this moment. We will focus all our energy and attention on simply being present with Christ as we welcome the Living Spirit of God in our midst.
And we are called to present this gift to the world. One thing I do love about artistic depictions of the nativity is the posture Joseph often has. He frequently is standing protectively above the manger, looking to the side and gesturing to the babe in the hay. He is introducing his son to the world. We are called to do the same – to bring this gift of the Christ Child to those who need to be re-introduced to the Love of God in this time and place.
In doing these things – in giving birth to the Christ – we also give birth to ourselves. We are, each of us, reborn in the moment that we become the mother or father of Christ. The ways that we prepare for the birth, the way that we labor, the way that we surrender ourselves to the mighty power of birth, the greeting that we offer, and the way we present the Christ to the rest of the world…all of these things shape who we are as Christians. We re-form ourselves as followers of Christ and as children of God when we commit ourselves to the work of bringing Christ into the world.
Birth is not easy. It can be painless. It can be short. It can be filled with laughter and joy. But it is still never easy. We must labor for birth. It is work.
We do this work with our bodies and our very selves. But we do not do it alone, for we do not belong entirely to ourselves. We were created by the Most High to do this work. And the steady, sure, gentle hand of God accompanies us throughout our labor. A firm pressure on our back in the midst of a difficult contraction. A cool cloth applied to our forehead at just the right moment. A word of encouragement whispered for only our ear.
God invites us to give birth to Christ and, in doing so, to give birth to ourselves. And God goes with us into the difficult work of birth. Thanks be to God and Merry Christmas.