A Human Story
A sermon preached by Margaret D. McGee at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, December 25, 2016.
Holy God, we gather in your name. May these words be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
A story we tell every year. Simple, human, compelling. A pregnant young woman travels with her betrothed to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, and the city of David. With no place to stay, she goes into labor. Ends up giving birth in a stable. With no crib, Mary wraps her child in cloth, and lays him in a feeding trough—a manger, where the cattle eat their grain.
Out in the fields, shepherds hear angelic news of this birth—news that a savior, their savior is born. They come to bear witness in the night. From far away, wise men set out on a journey to this spot, following a star they see as a portent of momentous events that will affect all the nations.
The shepherds and wise men are the principal witnesses mentioned in the Bible. I have wondered if perhaps another witness, unrecorded, may have come to help Mary in her distress. An older woman of the neighborhood, a midwife perhaps, to assist in the birth? Even a servant girl from the inn. Might such a one have been there, and gone unmentioned? I would like to think, far from home, surrounded by strangers, that Mary had the comfort of a woman’s touch.
Luke, who tells the story, makes sure we know all this happened at a particular time, and a particular place. He dates the events by the rulers of the day. He places the action in a town of historic importance not only to Joseph, but to all the people: the city of David, Israel’s greatest king.
We cherish this story in all its elements, from the Emperor Augustus to the donkey in the corner, because it’s part of our faith, and because it’s our story, too. It holds the breath of life, human life: the uncertainty, the pain and fear, the miracle of new birth, the mystery of salvation nestled in a bed of hay.
I have never been pregnant. However, I do have six nephews. And I was privileged to be a witness, to be physically present, at each of their births.
The first happened nearly 30 years ago, in Seattle, when my brother Brian’s wife Kathe gave birth to their first child. It had been a hard pregnancy—terrible nausea almost the entire term, emergency room visits, IV’s, the works. After the 8th month of Kathe’s pregnancy passed, we all hoped devoutly for an early, quick delivery, before the baby got any bigger. Kathe is a small woman—5’2”, weighing 100 pounds when not pregnant. Though the pregnancy was hard on her body, the kid grew like a pumpkin through the whole thing. In the final weeks she looked impossibly misshapen, her stomach sticking out so far that she had to carry it in her arms like a bundle of laundry to keep from toppling over.
But the birth would not be rushed. It was a week and a day after Kathe’s due date when I got the call that she was in labor at last, and we set off for the hospital. And the delivery would not be quick. Four shifts of nurses came and went, the earth revolved around the sun, we all traveled to the end of exhaustion and beyond, before my nephew Kern finally saw fluorescent light and cried aloud, and met his mom and dad and aunt. My brother wept, and held his son and wife together in his arms. We all wept.
Everyone was fine. I went home in a taxi, a different person than I was before. I felt as comfortable in the world as any animal. Washed clean. Saved in the the mysterious way of salvation that Paul writes to his colleague Titus, not because of anything I had done, but according to mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal. All through the following evening, the memory of the baby coming out of Kathe returned to me, and every time it did, I cried. I knew I couldn’t feel that way forever, but I wanted to.
And every other birth I’ve witnessed tells its own, unique human story:
Kathe and Brian’s second son, Rory, who like his brother Kern stayed in the womb for the full term plus, but unlike Kern, came out like a freight train.
My sister’s son Max, born just a few weeks after Rory, on the other side of the world, in a hospital in Sydney, Australia—an in vitro baby, who greeted the world on the same day Australia won the World Cup of cricket from Great Britain, in a match played in Calcutta that we listened to all day on the radio during Rose’s labor. (The whole family are cricket fans.)
Kathe and Brian’s third son, Trey, born in early spring when the crocus were in bloom, with my mother in the room too this time, to welcome her grandson into the family.
And finally, Kathe and Brian’s fourth and fifth sons, the twins, born at the end of December, 1999, in a hospital birthing room with little green stickers on all the equipment saying “Y2K OK” – that is, everything had been checked out for the dreaded Y2K bug, and all equipment would make it past midnight on the 31st, and into the new millennium, no problem.
Each birth with a unique story, its own particular human drama that plays out at its own unique time and place. And each one with some things in common. Here are some home truths I learned from what my nephews’ births held in common:
1. We are animals. Though we humans might like to set ourselves apart from the rest of nature, in fact, we are members of the animal kingdom, all of us, engaged in the most perilous and greatest challenge of creation—the drama of mortality.
2. Labor is an elemental force, like the tide—a force that must happen regardless of what us poor, weak people think or do. The unborn is baby is more powerful than anyone else in the room, more powerful even than herself or himself, because they’re gonna come out, regardless.
3. Time is holy, and places take on holiness from what happens in them. Each birth took place in a holy cocoon of time and place, and everybody present knew it. As the baby’s head crowned, the medical team edged together, shoulders rubbing, backs in the room’s shadows, faces lit up by the one bright light. Like me, they knew they were privileged to be on hand, and that they were witnessing a miracle. Again.
4. There will be blood. I never saw a bloodless birth.
5. Death is in the room. The possibility of death for mother, child, or both. The certainty of one more human death in the future. And it is there, in the presence of death, that the new way of being is born—a new way of being for parents and family—and that the whole world creates itself new again.
All that was true at every birth I witnessed. And I believe all that is true on the night in Bethlehem we remember today. True for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. A mother, a father. A birth, a child. And though death is in the room, death cannot win this battle, or the battle to come. The Love that made us, that makes us new every day, comes to be with us as a baby, born in the usual way.
Over 1600 years ago, St. Augustine, puzzling over the meaning of the Incarnation, wrote these words: “[Our] maker was made [human] that God, ruler of the Milky Way, might nurse at his mother’s breasts.”1
Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one.
Isaiah 9:2-7 Titus 3:4-7 Psalm 96 Luke 2:1-20
1Paraphrased from Augustine’s Sermon 191, variously translated at
http://blogs.nd.edu/oblation/2011/12/06/the-household-of-divinity-mary-and-the-season-of-advent- part-ii/; and http://www.dec25th.info/Augustine’s%20Sermon%20191.html, and in the book What the Gospels Meant by Garry Wills, Viking, 2008.