Luke’s gospel chapter 1 is about pregnancies: 1) the pregnancy of Elizabeth in her old age, who carries in her womb the future John the Baptist. 2) the pregnancy of young 13 old Miriam, who carries Jesus in her womb.
I would like to share some reflections this evening: My first is that pregnancy results in birth and life. All women reflect a deep mystery of Creation in pregnancy. I am actually speaking about gestation in the womb and do recognize that it usually takes a male and female to bring about pregnancy. Now I am speaking as a male, and I think a mother who could describe pregnancy better than myself from first-hand experience.
For me, creation is a stunningly amazing act of God’s generativity that is directed towards life. Years ago, I read a German theologian who wrote about creation. He imagines before the Big Bang, all space in the universe and beyond was God’s space; it was filled by God alone. Just before the Big Bang, God withdrew from God’s space to make room for creation. God creates by letting be, by making room, and by withdrawing God’s self to allow the infinite space of matter expanding into galaxies and beyond. This has been traditionally interpreted as God creating the universe from nothing. But this is more richly understood as maternal gestation in preparation of the birth of the universe. Like pregnancy, God’s womb is an act of hospitality, a welcoming into being. Several feminist theologians have strongly suggested this is analogous to pregnancy:
And it is clearly the parent as mother that is the stronger candidate for an understanding of creation as bodied forth from divine being, for it is imagery of gestation, giving birth, and lactation that creates an imaginative picture of creation as profoundly dependent on and cared for by divine life. There simply no other imagery available to us that has power for expressing the interdependence and interrelatedness of all life with is ground. All of us, female and male, have the womb as our first home, all of us born from the bodies of our mothers, all of us are fed by our mothers. (McFague)
All life-giving activities result in birthing. Women during their gestation period reflect God’s creative process of making room in God’s self for the birth of creation. This metaphor portrays how we live in the womb of God’s universe that has given life to us and an infinite multitude of life. As we born into the universe, perhaps the Holy Spirit might be understood as the umbilical cord that continues to link us to our divine parent. This means creation is till in the womb becoming what God intended.
Let me shift to Mary’s pregnancy. Mary becomes pregnant without Joseph as father. Being pregnant without a finalized marriage left Mary and Joseph in a socially awkward and religious predicament. The gospel of Matthew pictures the dilemma that imposes upon Joseph a difficult decision whether to divorce the pregnant Mary, denounce her, or finalize the marriage until God came to him in a dream and revealed that this was God’s birthing a child. English author Nick Page writes, “The story of Jesus’ birth is not one of exclusion, but inclusion…Joseph’s relatives made a place for Jesus in their heart of their household. They did not shun Mary, even though her status would have been suspect and even shameful (carrying an illegitimate child) they brought her inside. They made room for Jesus in the heart of a peasant’s home.” Joseph and his family made room for pregnant and unwed Mary in their family. Making room or hospitality is really inclusion; it reflects the reality of God creating the universe and us. God is about radical inclusive love, making space within God’s self for creation and birthing life. This making room is manifested in Joseph’s inclusion of Mary and Jesus into his own family. Hospitality is a sort welcoming into the womb of the house and family, for it is what church is.
Mary travels with Joseph to Bethlehem. The physical ordeal of riding on a donkey during pregnancy for several days is hard for me as a male to physically comprehend, and I suspect that the ride to Bethlehem induces labor pains and the birth of Jesus. The couple cannot find any room in Bethlehem and search out shelter in a canvasserie (cave-like shelter for travelers) that house domestic animals outside of Bethlehem.
“Is there room in our inn (or church) for Jesus?” In this time of fear, undocumented folks in the US fear that there is no room for themselves in our country. They remain publicly unwelcomed. Many folks of good faith are asking themselves: “How can we — and our world, our state, our church — make room for the politically unwelcomed who are undocumented?” A 83 year old Jewish atheist whom I met at a wedding that I officiated here, asked me, “how can I make my house a sanctuary.” Another non-Christian friend has told me that he has a secret underground room with electricity and water and that he plans to hide undocumented folks threatened with deportation. These and others realize that hospitality, making room for those at risk and emotionally traumatized by the political election, has become too real in reflecting the story of the birth of Jesus and the later need to flee as refugees from Bethlehem as Herod seeks out to kill Jesus and his family.
Now Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger, a feeding trough. The feeding trough is the least of all social places to lay a newly born infant. But the Christ child shares space with domesticated animals. We often take that as poetic convention that adds a warm familiarity or sentimentality to our Nativity crèches. The manger reminds that non-human animals are considered by humans as lower than the least human and just barely above slavery, a prominent institution of burden and oppression that kept the Roman Empire working. But I take the birth of God’s incarnate child in the canvasserie with non-human life and laid in a manger a evelation: it points out that we human animals share space with non-human animals from God’s perspective. Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently in Hebrew scriptures, suggests the importance and the belovedness that God has for non-human animals. “God so loved the world that God sent God’s only begotten child….” (Jn. 3:16) The manger reminds that God is not born just for humanity, but for all non-human life and the Earth. God became flesh dependent on the eco-systems for nourishment and protection. Christ’s birth calls us to recommit to protect the Earth and all life: the trees and life in the rainforest, the whales, the oceans and the lands. These share earthliness as the new Adam, the divine earth-creature is born.
The marginal location of the birth of Jesus makes it accessible to the marginalized shepherds outside of the town of Bethlehem. Angels appear to the shepherds, announcing “Today in the city of David, is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds are told to search for a sign—a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This, of course, is an unusual sign for a Savior and Lord, born in a cave with non-human animals. And in Luke, shepherds, outsiders and despised Jews, came to venerate him in a feeding trough as Savior and God’s Child. They did not leave their flocks behind but brought them along. The shepherds too found inspiration and hope for then and the future, for an innocent child in a feeding trough illuminated by a star and the arrival of expectant shepherds who experience wonder. This child born in a cave is good news for marginalized and despised shepherds, but this good news for all who are poor and oppressed. And the shepherds returned praising God for what they had experienced.
One of the strong and clear messages from the Nativity of Jesus is that we Christians cannot truly love the infant Jesus without loving nature, other life, and the marginalized. But there are some important words that we often overlook: “Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” Treasuring the words of the shepherds and their coming to see the birth of her child and pondering this in her heart are important part of the Christmas story. We are called to treasure this story and ponder its meaning for ourselves.
Treasuring and pondering are the essential skills for meditatively comprehending God’s incarnation. Mary gives an example of how to become pregnant with the living Christ and birth Christ into the world. Christ becomes a part of our fleshly and metaphoric wombs, and that means men as well as women. By saying “yes” to God’s offer of grace and unconditional love to the Angel Gabriel, Mary becomes pregnant with the divine Word, the Christ. Through faith, Mary comes to ponder and keeping in heart the finding Jesus in the Temple, his ministry and death on the cross, and his resurrection. By paying attention to the gospel story tonight and other gospel stories, we carry mindfully the incarnation of God’s compassion in the world within ourselves.
We are called in this story to pay attention to God’s enfleshment as a newborn baby. The birth of any baby elicits an emotional response for care. This becomes ironic for us. We are called to care for the well-being and nourishment in the infant in the manger. Our invitation to use our instinctual desire to care for the well-being of the God become child. Heart and mind become mindfully focused on this child before us tonight, everything else in our lives becomes secondary to paying attention and caring for the Christ child. This same attention of heart and mind to the infant Christ becomes an invitation to pay as close attention to the poor and suffering in the world, human and non-human life and the Earth herself.
One author writes,
On Christmas Day, we are invited to the humble place where God is new and needing. We are to practice thinking and caring for what is not me, or even us, to rethink how we are in the world, how our doing affects the welfare of a world inhabited by God who at this moment needs for us to pay attention (like Mary) and out of that that attention to create the conditions of health and security at the manager (which is everything in the world). (Kristin Swenson)
My colleague and clergy friend, Tom Bohache, writes something complementary:
…incarnation is an acceptance that we bear Christ within us—the part of God that is instilled in us to bring forth from ourselves the offspring of Christ-ness: self-empowerment, creativity, awareness of creation, joy, love, peace and justice-making to name a few.
Tom Bohache acknowledges when we follow Mary’s example of treasuring the moment and keeping it ever mindful, the mystery of the Nativity lives on in us—we become pregnant with Christ and we too give birth to Christ.
…the Nativity is the realization that Christ will be born, no matter what the circumstances. No matter how hard it is, no matter how perilous the journey, no matter that folks might not receive us, once we agreed to give birth to Christ; most will go about their business and oppressing others. Some, like King Herod, …will seek to destroy what we have birthed; they will seek to take our Christ presence away from us.
God’s blending of the human and the divine in the birth of Christ is God’s greatest work, Christ is the blueprint of what is happening to us tonight. The reality is that during Advent the gestation of Christ within ourselves leads to Christ’s birth in us. The scandal of God’s birth in human flesh is that it is not once and for all; it is promiscuous. It happens hundreds of millions, if not billions of time, that God is born in us. We become Christ living in the world, manifesting God’s forgiveness, love, peace, compassion. We are infused with Christ, thus like Christ we become God’s eyes; God’s arms and legs, we become God’s compassionate incarnation. That is truly a radical mystery because God is willing to be ultimately inclusive by emptying God’s self in a network of humanity, all life, and creation alive. Creation and Christ’s incarnation continues to happen, and there is no stopping this flow of radical inclusive love. Love conquers not only death but all obstacles to life-giving and birthing the abundant, unconquerable compassion of God in creation, in the reality that we know. Merry Christmas, for you have birthed tonight as the Christ child. And we sing with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on the lowest margins of the Earth…”