A Holy Reality: A Theology of Childbirth

My good friend Ben recently wrote a post called "Church Mothers" about the very specific qualifications (and authority!) that mothers have for ministry in the church. Read his post!

He raises not only the issue of women's role in the church and in ministry—it "pains" him that his daughter "will grow up with people commenting more on the print of her dresses and her cute shoes then her ability to speak God’s words, or be God’s hands, or to teach all of us of God’s love"—but he also raises an interesting question. He writes, "It hurts me to see that we invest in marriages, and funerals, but childbirth is left off of our list of events in the life of the church."

So why is childbirth not a bigger deal in the church? We spend lots of time talking about the sacredness and meaning in weddings and funerals—to name a couple of milestones in life—but it seems that we reserve the significance of childbirth to some other realm of human life. We might celebrate it in our churches (I've heard lots of stories about churches throwing baby showers for pregnant women) but we typically don't hold a special worship service or celebrate it as having spiritual, sacred, or sacramental value. The closest we come to such a thing is in baptisms and baby dedications... but even then, it's really about the kid and not the event of their birth and the woman who labored for it. For the most part, along with the rest of our culture, we pretty much see child birth as a medical event, not as a holy reality.

Our society has gotten caught up in the medical side of child bearing (and it's not to be missed; birth is profoundly medical). We picture (and on some level we even want to see) the women laying in a bed, surrounded by panicked male doctors in surgical masks (even the partner, if there, wears one), being told to push and breathe in strange bursts—"HEE, HEE, HOO!"—until out pops the screaming baby... who's then taken to some other room and poked around to make sure everything's there. And while this is what we see on television (and it might even be reality in some cases), this is not how birth has to be seen. Besides the fact that women have lots of choices as to how their birthing experience can go (at least in the West) and that there are lots of positions for childbirth that have real advantages over the laying-down position, it need be neither panicked or purely medical. Now I might be speaking as someone who's yet to experience it, but it's an intimate occasion—intimate not only for family, but specifically and uniquely intimate for parents as partners. It's personal. It's utterly human. And it's profoundly sacred.
Farid De La Ossa Arrieta: God, the Mother (2002)

Perhaps the church, by being historically chauvinist and by getting caught up in society's perceptions, has been missing out on the holiness of childbearing. If the connections between the gospel and the bringing of new life into the world are not obvious enough, there are a multiplicity of holy dimensions to the process of childbearing. The kind of "suffering"* that is endured, the kind of patience that's given, the intimacy between partners, and the ministry of the caregiver—the Doula and the Midwife or the OBGYN—these are holy realities. These are realities that bear witness to the God who suffers, endures, nurtures, nurses, comforts, bears with, and ministers to the creation that's birthed through God.

As a woman endures the pain of childbearing—taking on, in a unique way, the curse of human sin (Genesis 3:16) for humanity's sake—God takes the sin of the world upon Godself for the world's sake. As the mother labors for life, to bring new life into the world, God labors over creation to bring a new heaven and a new earth. As the mother is anointed by the patience of her caregivers and the loving comfort of her partner, we are reminded of the anointed Jesus, who ministered to the world and received the ministry of his friends. The event of childbirth is a witness to God's laboring love for God's creation.

If we celebrate weddings and funerals as sacramental and sacred, then surely the work of childbearing something to be celebrated. The work which surrounds it is ministry to which the people of God are called and ordained according to their roles and abilities. If we could escape our chauvinism and our reductionistic perceptions, then perhaps we'd see a lot more Midwives and Doulas ordained in the church by God as ministers. Perhaps we'd see more worship services which witness to the sacredness of childbirth, more liturgies that affirm the witness of mothers to the reality of a God who labors over and nurses the life of humanity. And perhaps we'd affirm its intimacy and advocate for the humanity of the event, for the choices that women have and for the dignity they deserve.

*I put suffering in quotes because while the pain is very real, it's not the same as the suffering of a victim of some terrible plight. Even suffering in this context is conditioned by something divine, by purpose and by power. And indeed there is a sort of commission to the suffering. As disciples receive, from the the nail-scarred Jesus, a commission—"as the Father sent me, I am sending you"—we too receive from our mothers, who often bear on their bodies the scars of our birth, a commission to labor for life as God labors for creation.