Our first child came on a hot day in July. He was in a hurry to get into the world, and all of our plans for what his birth would look like disappeared into the rush of the afternoon.
Our second child came in December in the night. She too came fast. My wife, Phoebe, will say sometimes that she went to sleep, woke up and had baby, and then went back to sleep. When we got up in the morning we looked around in our bed a said: Oh. A child.
Our youngest arrived in October, and he wanted to come fast as well. But as sometimes happens, his head was turned up, up like a cyclist pushing hard into the wind and towards the finish line. And so his coming into this life was marked by the siren and the lights of an ambulance.
We, all of us, have a story of how we were born. Some of these stories are part of family lore, some of them are written into books, and some of them are all but forgotten except for a mark on a ledger or a dusty photograph or an uncertain tale told by an uncertain relative. All of these stories are extraordinary, awesome in the old-school sense of that word. And all of them are everyday and ordinary. There is nothing more ordinary than being born. It is how 100% of us got here, much as 100% will leave this life through the awesome and ordinary thing that is death.
There are a number of things that I remember in particular about our children’s births.
I remember the intensity of it – intense, rather than painful, being the word that Phoebe reaches for to describe the physical reality of childbirth. It certainly was intense for me. So much of the time, my attention is going seven different directions. At our children’s births, my focus was total.
I remember the carnality of it, the indisputable proof that, at least during our time on this earth, we are inseparable from our bodies. That, as the wonderful feminist theologian Ellen Clark-King puts it, we are not people who have bodies; we are people who are bodies. When birth begins, there is choosing to go do something else.
I remember the divinity of it, the sense, the knowledge, the assurance, that God was there in the room with us, that if we had torn up the floorboards, we could have touched God’s face.
I remember the awe and wonder of it. The awe and wonder, especially, of witnessing my spouse give birth. I understood in a deeper way then kind of power Phoebe held within her.
I remember the finitude of it. (I’m not sure if that is exactly the right word, but it’s the best that I can do.) To be in the room when birth happens is, inescapably, to encounter death. It is to remember that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.
And I remember the communion of it. All of the helpers gathered ‘round. The midwives, Phoebe’s Mum, and later on our younger children welcoming their new siblings. At our youngest child’s birth, there were the firefighters and the paramedics and later the doctors and nurses. One of the nurses, in a detail that would have been right at home in a period drama, had a glorious Irish brogue.
The Gospel tells us that birth is how God chooses to enter into the world. That God, too, has a story of being born.
The wonderful writer Sarah Bessey, whose reflections served as the fire starter for this sermon, has suggested that we would think of the birth of Jesus differently if the story of it were told by women. Creches are so clean and neat, oil paintings tend to feature a holy family that is suspiciously well rested. If women – or at least, men who had been present at births – told this story, the creches would be a whole lot messier. And the oil paintings would feature a whole lot more people, all of the helpers whom we encountered, all of the people participating in the intensity, the carnality, the divinity of birth.
And if the story were told not just by women but by women who knew birth in Mary and Joseph’s time, the creche and the oil paintings would put us in a different location. Today, we think of a barn or a stable as a discrete building, physically separated from the farmhouse. But all those years ago, people lived with their animals, both to keep the animals safe and because the animals warmed the house up. So, when the story says that Jesus is laid in a manger – in other words a trough – we might imagine that manger in less of a contemporary barn and more of an ancient living room, with the bustle of the kitchen and family life close at hand.
What does it mean that God is born in this way? What does it mean that God is born in this place?
Here are two possible answers. (This is not an exhaustive list. It is but two of the possibilities that I am thinking of tonight.)
First, it means that birth is holy. While the birth of the Messiah absolutely says something specific about Jesus, it also says something about being born in general. The incarnation declares in flesh what God declares in words in the Book of Genesis, that being born and having a body and walking the earth is good. It is very good.
I think it’s Hannah Arendt who says that we call ourselves mortals, and that we’re right to do so – we are, all of us, people who will die. But Arendt adds that we sometimes might do well to change things up and call ourselves natals: people who have been born. As a natal, know that you have come into this world in the same way as God. And know that being a natal means that you are beloved of God, precious beyond measuring to God.
The second thing that the incarnation tells us is that God participates absolutely in being alive. God is someone who has been born, with all of the radical vulnerability of that, all of the willingness to trust human beings as God came crying into this world. It means that God grew and God stubbed God’s toe and God got the flu and God has acne God wondered whether God’s classmate liked God as much as God liked them and, in the end, like all natals, that God proved to be a mortal, and died.
I’ve shared with you before the story that Richard Rohr tells of meeting a hermit on a path through the woods. The hermit, in some excitement, stops Rohr and says:
Richard! You get to preach and I don’t. So tell people.
God isn’t somewhere else.
The birth of Jesus, the incarnation, declares that God is not somewhere else. God is here, in our deepest joys and our deepest griefs.
Just like Jesus, all of us have a story of how we were born, of how we became natals, of how we came to walk this earth. Our story and Jesus’ story alike tell us that we are beloved children of God. Our story and Jesus’ story alike tell us that Jesus’ ancient name contains everything that we need to know. Jesus is Emmanuel, a word that is a promise, the promise that God with us.