The lash still cut my flesh, the nails still pierced me, I was still mocked by those I came to save, I was still abandoned by those who had followed me. Would you ask a woman in the midst of labor how it feels to be a mother?[i]
This piece comes from the imagination of author and artist Thomas Schmidt, but it evoked in me a fresh sense of wonder at these moments of suffering and violence that we relive every year during Holy Week. It’s an interesting analogy (please, indulge this nine month pregnant priest for a moment) – all of motherhood cannot be summed up in the experience of labor and neither can all of Christ’s faithfulness be summed up in the crucifixion. There were plenty of times when Jesus stood up to violence and evaded suffering, but this moment is different. This is the moment when Jesus has a sense that giving into the powers both inside and outside his fallible human body would bring something new to birth.
There is no doubt that this moment in Christian history is a touchstone moment, a transition moment when new life about to be born was yet overshadowed by the pain of the birthing process, and that’s one reason why we feel the need to retell it year after year – as a mother needs to tell the birth story to their child. Risking overstating this analogy, there are some striking parallels between the passion narrative we just read and the experience some women have of labor.
At the onset of labor there is a kind of excited anticipation, the woman is often chatty and confident. Jesus seems to have this sort of early energy and calm at the Last Supper. Though aware of his coming death, he is able to communicate his desire and purpose and remain calm in the face of the difficult day ahead.
As labor progresses the woman grows increasingly quiet as the pain of the process requires more of her attention. Without the support of calm understanding people with her, she may begin to panic at the growing pain, ask for medication for relief. At the scene in the Garden, Jesus’ anxiety clearly grows and he requests support from his friends, a request that goes unfulfilled.
In unmedicated childbirth, the woman hits a point called transition. It is the most difficult part of labor, but it also signals the nearness of birth. It’s those moments when it feels like the pain will swallow you, when your body feels like it’s falling apart. Some women have been known to try and flee the room, as if they could flee the pain. This is the moment of blame – when partners get cussed at and the only companion seems to be the pain itself. The rush of birthing hormones as well as endorphins in the brain makes the woman seem like she’s in a trance, “Labor Land.” As Jesus bore the cross and cried out his sense of abandonment from his posture of death, his transition was nearly complete.
At the moment of his death, at the moment of birth, scripture poetically imagines that the curtain of the temple is torn, the earth shakes, tombs are opened. The veil between the material and spiritual worlds are very thin. But we have not yet arrived at the end of this process, we have not yet seen what this new life looks like. Today we are left at the moment of transition For me, it’s a good reminder that part of the journey of faith is and must be the experience of despair, pain, uncertainty, and even abandonment. These are not signs of faithlessness, but of fully engaging the process of birthing God into the world again and again, of ushering in new life.
At key moments in every individual’s life there is pain and transition. Growing into adulthood for men and women alike undergo years of agonizing labor, i.e. adolescence. The pain and despair of this part of life is real and does work to allow the child to die and the adult to rise.
We are reminded today as we gather around the table to tell the painful story of death and birth again, that to be human and to be a person of faith is not safe, it’s not clear and uncomplicated, and it’s not always comfortable. Today we honor and even give thanks for those moments of transition when we are so given to the process that the next life is still masked in shadow and death – when the cry of the newborn is still unheard, when the announcement of resurrection is still buried in a tomb.
[i] Thomas Schmidt, A Scandalous beauty: The Artistry of God and the Way of the Cross, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002) 60.
This is an abridged version of a homily I preached for Sts. Clare & Francis Palm Sunday 2011. I was nine months pregnant with my second child. My daughter was born exactly two weeks later.