When people ask about my daughter’s birth, I usually describe the weather. I tell them a story, a true one, about the blizzard that raged the day she came—about my prayers that the baby woulfd stay put during the storm and the telling pains that nevertheless arrived, with no warning, to wreak havoc on my body, just as the blowing snow made mischief for the cars that slid by my window. I tell them about my husband’s frantic shoveling to free the car from the mountains of snow in the driveway and our harrowing ride to the hospital, during which we made cautious haste—cautious so that the car would be able to stop, haste so that we would make it in time. I tell them, finally, about the baby that was born eleven minutes after we traversed the long hospital corridor to the inner sanctum at its end.
People like this story. But I intend it primarily as a metaphor, a way to talk about certain aspects of this birth that are difficult to describe in polite society. When I begin discussing the blizzard that heralded my daughter’s arrival, I mean that labor itself is a blizzard, a storm unleashed in the body. When this storm came upon me, it produced gusts and gales that nearly blew me over, winds that elicited my howls of agony. I felt the storm’s violence would split my body in two. The white fury of a blizzard, I have found, is a good metaphor for childbirth.
Childbirth, in turn, is a good metaphor for other storms in my life. With its associations of creativity and violence, it describes my spiritual struggles particularly well. As a follower of Christ, I know the pain of cultivating the life of the spirit, a pain that is, in its own way, as great as that of birthing a human life. In fact, the pain may be greater, since spiritual birth lasts longer—far longer than my two-mile ride to the hospital, a ride that, for all its brevity, seemed to take a lifetime. A lifetime is precisely what it will take to resolve the labor Jesus asks me to suffer. Knowing this, I get ready for the storm; I prepare to brave the elements. I will be in that car, in a blizzard, for a long time to come.
In the Old Testament, metaphors of birth, when applied to people and nations, often are violent—far more violent than my blizzard. They speak of travail without resolution, fear without comfort (Hammer 1994, 54–56). Among the images used by the prophet Isaiah to describe people facing the judgment of God, childbirth looms large:
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt. They will be dismayed: pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. (Isaiah 13:6–8)
In passages such as this, the symptoms of labor are present, but they do not lead to the moment of joyous release. No child will be born to those whom God has condemned. Later in Isaiah, the laboring mother, a figure for Israel, struggles and writhes, only to give birth to wind (Isaiah 26:17–18). These are truly terrifying images. The hope of new life enables a laboring woman to endure her agony. But Isaiah tells only half a birth story. There is no child, living or dead; only the anguish remains.
In the New Testament, birthing metaphors communicate certain hope. Since the coming of Christ, God’s people no longer labor in vain; their pangs produce new life. From the Gospels to the Book of Revelation, these metaphors punctuate the teachings of Jesus and his followers, speaking of our rebirth as Christians and our often painful transformation into the image of Christ. At one time, I might have passed over these verses, but no longer. They now stand out as my swollen belly once did. When I encounter the New Testament passages on birth, I find echoes of my own blizzard and a description of the storm that is my faith. The hope—and the writhing—of spiritual birth are mine to claim.
Jesus himself spoke of an ordeal as painful as childbirth when he prepared the disciples for his arrest and crucifixion. In the form of a metaphor, he warned them of events that would challenge their faith and change their life:
When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:21–22)
Although the disciples wished him to speak “clearly and without figures of speech,” Jesus settles on the imagery of travail as the most apt way to describe their experience of the crucifixion—their fear and confusion, their intense sorrow and anguish.
What did the disciples think, hearing themselves likened to a birthing woman? Did they know what birth was like? Did they recall the violent metaphors from Isaiah—and tremble? They did not seem to realize that they shortly would experience what Jesus termed, metaphorically, a kind of labor. But labor they did. As they watched Jesus arrested and crucified, they felt the pangs that eventually would bring forth new life. It must have seemed a stillbirth at first, until they beheld the risen Lord three days later.
This birthing metaphor applies not only to the disciples. Jesus’ teachings also are meant to benefit later Christians, myself included. His metaphor describes, in vivid imagery, what will happen in my own life as I wait for his return. It tells me that, like the disciples, I will be in labor. What is more, I will be in labor for Jesus. In the terms of the metaphor, he is the one I will see when I am delivered. He is the new life I expect, the child who will turn my sorrow to joy. The metaphor makes the story of my faith a birth story, one that tells the tale of my struggle to bring forth Jesus in my life—to bear him in my words, my actions, my innermost heart.
I approach the implications of Jesus’ metaphor with some fear and trembling, for I remember what it is like to be a birthing woman. I remember the spasms and the writhing, the gritting of teeth and the pain. I remember the unglamorous image I presented as I made sounds I did not know could escape my lips. This painful indignity I must accept in my spiritual birth. I must endure it if my faith is to grow—if Jesus is to grow and be born in me. I can escape my travail no more than any woman about to deliver, no more than I could when I took that harrowing ride to the hospital, bearing down all the way.
The apostle Paul understood the necessity—and the pain—of spiritual birth as expressed in Jesus’ metaphor. In the letters he wrote to the churches he planted and nurtured, he defines labor—our labor for the Lord—as an essential task of the followers of Jesus. He also defines it as a source of the many hardships that befall them in this world. In his letter to the Romans, for example, Paul explicitly defines Christian suffering in terms of childbirth. He begins with a cosmic image that seems, at first, to relate only distantly to our experience. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together as in the pains of childbirth until now,” he writes (Romans 8:22). The creation groans because it desperately awaits renewal. It travails—and has been travailing for some time—until Jesus returns to redeem it.
Paul then gets personal. We read that in laboring for its future glory, the creation labors alongside us. It waits for us—the sons and daughters of God—to give birth, too. After speaking of the groaning creation, Paul continues: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We—the Roman church and those of us who await Jesus’ coming today—experience the same pain that creation does. That is, we experience the pain of labor. Paul takes up the metaphor that Jesus used for the disciples, applying it to all followers of Christ. We are, he says, birthing mothers.
At first, Paul’s account of Christian suffering may not seem to warrant the force of a birthing metaphor. In the passage quoted above, he says that we groan while waiting—waiting for our adoption as sons and daughters, waiting to be redeemed, waiting, in other words, for Jesus to return so that we may be made perfect before God. Waiting might require perseverance and strength of character, but we generally do not think of it as a forceful activity. In the context of childbirth, however, waiting involves a good deal of exertion. When I gave birth to my daughter, “waiting” produced spasms that wracked my body, causing me to writhe, groan, and emit other sounds that certainly could be categorized as “forceful.” Inactivity lasted but a few moments. The rest was hard work—it was labor.
That Paul associated this labor of “waiting” with labor for Jesus is suggested by his letter to the church in Galatia. Expressing concern that the Galatians were about to exchange the freedom of Christ for the chains of slavery—that they might lose the life they labored to bear—he calls them “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19). This passage boasts a double birth. Paul himself labors for the church in Galatia, and at the same time he acts as a midwife to help the church birth the image of Christ.
As with Paul’s “little children,” so with me. As I wait for Jesus, I am anything but passive. I labor to give birth to Christ in my heart and my life. I strive to carry him forth into the world. To do so, I must change and grow, as I did during my physical pregnancy; I must become nearly unrecognizable to myself. Unlike the nation of Israel in the passages from Isaiah, I do not labor in vain; I know the child whom I expect. But it is still a lengthy and exhausting travail. If my labor for my daughter was a blizzard, bearing Jesus is a storm of even greater magnitude. It is a mile-wide tornado that sweeps through my life of would-be complacency and destroys all that I have before setting me down, none too gingerly, to begin anew. To birth a savior is daily to endure this storm. No wonder Paul says that I groan.
I could not brave this storm if the one for whom I labor did not first labor for me. Jesus must be not only the firstborn among many sons and daughters, as Paul writes later in the passage from Romans quoted above. He also must precede them as a mother. Peter, one of the disciples who heard himself compared to a birthing woman, evidently considered his own pangs to be in imitation of Jesus. Following the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter preached about the supremacy of Christ, proclaiming, “God raised him up, having loosed the birth pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). I quote from a translation by Margaret Hammer, who argues that the word “pain” or “pangs” used in most versions is more accurately rendered “birth pangs” (Hammer 1994, 64). The meaning of the verse does not change with this translation. Instead, its sense is heightened. Through his labor on the cross, Jesus opened the dark and narrow passage to life. Acting as a midwife, God delivered him—loosed his pangs—so that the womb opened and the world could be born anew.
When we think of birth in connection with Jesus, we usually turn to the familiar nativity passages in the Gospel of Luke, the ones that tell of the coming of an infant savior. Peter’s sermon, however, suggests that Jesus himself is a birthing mother. This idea became rich fodder for the devotional writings of medieval theologians and mystics, who liked to reflect on Jesus’ birth story. Their work helps us to visualize the cross as a bed of labor. The eleventh-century bishop and theologian Anselm of Canterbury, for example, wrote a “Prayer to St. Paul,” in which he approaches Paul as an intercessor and, drawing on the passage in Galatians mentioned above, calls him an affectionate mother “in labour for her sons.” He sees Paul’s motherhood as an echo of Jesus’ own:
Lord, you are a mother;
for both they who are in labour
and they who are brought forth
are accepted by you.
You have died more than they, that they may labour to bear.
It is by your death that they have been born,for if you had not been in labour,
you could not have borne death;
and if you had not died, you would not have brought forth.
For, longing to bear sons into life,
you tasted of death,
and by dying you begot them.
(The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm 1973, 153)
Anselm here plays on the unusual connection between death and birth first made by Peter in the book of Acts. His prayer recalls the Old Testament metaphors of childbirth, in which death and destruction loom large. On a more prosaic level, it brings to mind the risks of childbirth that always have existed for mothers—sometimes, a woman dies in bringing forth her child. It is, or used to be, one of a woman’s greatest fears. Jesus himself took on this fear. In accepting the humility of the cross, he accepted the humility of death in childbirth. He is the ultimate mother, dying so that his children might live.
For details on Jesus’ difficult birth, we must turn to a later writer of the church, the Carthusian prioress and mystic, Marguerite d’Oingt. In the early fourteenth century, Marguerite wrote A Page of Meditations, in which she reflects upon a vision of the Lord she received during mass. In the course of her meditation, she considers a number of names for Jesus, and, when she comes to the Passion, settles, like Anselm, on the name of mother. But Anselm’s poetic restraint falls away in Marguerite’s meditation as she cries out to Jesus, commiserating with him on his long, thirty-three-year labor:
Are you not my mother and more than mother? The mother who bore me labored at my birth for one day or one night, but you, my sweet and lovely Lord, were in pain for me not just one day, but you were in labor for more than thirty years. Oh, sweet and lovely Lord, how bitterly were you in labor for me all through your life! But when the time approached where you had to give birth, the labor was such that your holy sweat was like drops of blood which poured out of your body onto the ground. (The Writings of Margaret of Oingt 1990, 31)
When she imagines the moment of birth, Marguerite transforms the more common meditation on the wounds of Christ into the retelling of a particularly dramatic birth story:
Oh, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw any mother suffer such a birth! But when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; and seeing this, they stretched you out and fixed you with nails and you were so stretched that there was no bone left that could still have been disjointed, and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day. (The Writings of Margaret of Oingt 1990, 31)
In birthing the world, Jesus gives new life to all who live therein. He gives them salvation. Marguerite pictures this extraordinary birth using details that many women might recognize. Sweat. Blood. Shot nerves. Broken veins. She even invites us to imagine Jesus lying on a bed as a woman might, as I did, for part of her labor. It might stretch the devotional imagination to picture Jesus lying prostrate in labor, yet Marguerite insists upon it. She does not say that Jesus’ suffering was like a woman’s travail. In her mind, Jesus is a mother, one who had to go through what any mother must.
Marguerite’s reflection finds a visual counterpart in the Ebstorf Map, the largest surviving world map from the Middle Ages. The Ebstorf Map pictures the known world around the year 1300 and places Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, at the center of the earth. But this map presents more than a picture of the created world. It shows the creation birthed. At the map’s circumference, Jesus’ head, arms, and feet are visible; the world itself has become his body. To my mind, this is also a pregnant body, swollen with new life. And at its center lies Jerusalem, which, in the Middle Ages, frequently was referred to as the navel of the earth. From this life-giving navel, Jesus births the world. He is a fellow mother and mother to us all.
I confess that during childbirth, I did not think about Jesus’ motherhood. I was too overcome by the fury of the blizzard. But I think about it now. In the storm of my faith, I remember Jesus’ birth story. I recall that he was caught in his own storm, as Marguerite’s description makes clear. Even the weather participated in the drama—the sky darkened during the final hours of Jesus’ travail, just as the darkness of abandonment and death overcame him. Jesus and I share a storm. We labor together—he to bear me, I to bear his image to the world.
To bear Jesus—to bear the pain of his coming—I model my birth story on his. The anguish of Jesus’ birth I already know, or at least a shadow of it. I know it when I fight with my flesh to bring Jesus to life in me. I know it when I struggle to live the pronouncement that I must decrease so that he may increase. I know it, finally, when the storm rips through my being and I drop to my knees, begging God to relieve me of what seems an endless labor—as Jesus did before his impending travail on the cross.
But this anguish is only half my—and Jesus’—story. The tale cannot be truncated, but it has a turning point. I think again of what Jesus told the disciples: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21). Speaking these words shortly before his arrest in the garden, Jesus almost could be referring to his own work on the cross—in the words of Peter, Anselm, and Marguerite, his impending birth. Perhaps, in asserting that a mother’s pain turns to joy, Jesus offered himself what comfort he could. He needed comfort—but we also know, of course, that his birth story ends well. Although he passed through the storm, he came out on the other side, into life. This knowledge comforts me as I live out my own story. It reminds me to cling to the promise of life, to the hope of joy. It encourages me to look to the day I will no longer remember the anguish; as rendered in other translations, the day I will “forget.”
This is the very promise that a laboring mother most needs to hear. Yet in the throes of childbirth, it is not an easy one to grasp. It was not easy in my journey to the hospital, the pain all but eclipsing my husband’s encouraging shouts of, “We’re almost there!” And it is not easy now, in my journey of faith. As I struggle to become the mother Jesus wants me to be, I live in the moment of “almost there,” a moment fraught with tension and a terrible yearning for release. In this moment, I long to forget.
Fortunately, the aftermath of my harrowing ride through the blizzard gave me some experience at forgetting. In fact, I remember my moment of forgetfulness well. The storm had spent its fury, and so had my body. Outside my window glittered fields of white that closed schools and kept much of the hospital staff on triple overtime. But I had eyes only for the issue of my own storm: a slippery body that so recently had emerged from my own, a pair of deep blue eyes seeking out my voice, a small, wet mouth nuzzling my skin. I saw, and held, new life. And in this life, I caught a glimpse of the end of the birth story I am writing with Jesus. As he promised, it is full of joy—the joy of new life, the joy of standing before God and proclaiming, “I forget!”
As a fellow mother, Jesus knows this joy. The Ebstorf Map, the same image that alludes to Jesus’ pregnancy and labor, also shows the resolution of his travail. Jesus not only births the world. He also appears to hold it, his arms wrapped around it, his hands grasping it as a mother would her new creation. As if to reinforce this gesture, an inscription by Christ’s left hand reads, “He holds the earth in his hand.” The map presents a picture of the future: the world is redeemed, the creation made new. It groans no longer, and neither does Jesus. He is the savior who endured birth on the cross for the joy set before him.
The Ebstorf Map also pictures my own labor resolved, as surely as does the hospital snapshot of my newborn child. For I am one of the creatures of the world gathered in the arms of Jesus. I am one of the redeemed. The end of my birth story has been written—it speaks of pangs loosed and storms becalmed. It promises that I will be delivered! As I travail, I hold on to this image, this promise. I follow Jesus my mother into the labor that gives way to new life. For this life, I will embrace birth. I am a woman whose hour has come.
Lisa Deam is a writer and art historian who lives in Valparaiso, Indiana.
Hammer, Margaret L. Giving Birth: Reclaiming Biblical Metaphor for Pastoral Practice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
The Holy Bible English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2001.
The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm. Benedicta Ward, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.
The Writings of Margaret of Oingt, Medieval Prioress and Mystic (d. 1310). Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, trans. Newburyport, MA: Focus Information Group, 1990.