A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16.21-22)
I once asked an obstetrician why doctors in old movies always send the father off to boil water while they tend to the mother. I suspected it had to do with sterilizing instruments. She laughed, “Who knows?” Barring complications, she explained, childbirth requires no more than a scissors to cut the umbilical cord. Since that’s immediately tied off, risk of infection is close to nil. She theorized the convention was meant to divert attention from the delivery. “The last thing the studios wanted was a movie goddess panting and sweating. In the time it takes a kettle to boil, the baby could be born, bathed, and blanketed, the room tidied up, and the star’s make-up reapplied. For glamour’s sake, off-screen worked best, I suppose.”
Movie mentality leads us to glamorize the Nativity. (Matthew and Luke help by discretely ignoring the delivery.) After Mary and Joseph find shelter in a stable, we fade to black to indicate passage of time and fade up on the Babe in the hay; Mary refreshed and rested; Joseph calm and collected; livestock lowing while the couple hosts a bizarre group of surprise guests. Our hearts sing, “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!” We extol the “miraculous birth of Jesus,” when it’s nothing of the kind. It’s like any other birth: painful, prolonged, and—because Mary’s away from home, without a midwife or female relatives to coach her through it—an agonizing ordeal. Oh, and there’s one more thing. Since she and Joseph are well aware of the Baby’s identity, the prospect of losing Him surely terrifies them. Those off-screen hours must be their darkest, loneliest, and most tentative. Yet injecting a harsh dose of reality into the Christmas story ultimately amplifies our joy and wonder, because every birth brings joy after pain. Every newborn is a miracle.
Strangely, the best description Scripture affords of Mary’s delivery is found in a comment Jesus makes at the Last Supper. He prepares the disciples for His execution by comparing His absence between death and resurrection to a mother in labor. “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come,” He tells them. “But when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16.21) Irony colors the remark coming, as it does, from the Child born to die to bring life to a dying world. One can’t help wondering if Jesus says this with His mother in mind, knowing His crucifixion will plunge her into a second labor while she awaits His rebirth as the Risen Christ. Although the Gospels single out the twelve male disciples at the Passover meal, it’s not unreasonable to imagine Mary and other women disciples are also present, opening the possibility she hears Jesus say this and understands Him more clearly than the rest. She alone knows the joy after pain of giving birth to God’s Promise. Only Mary could grasp the full extent of what Jesus is predicting and what He’s asking His followers to do. As Luke 2.19 so splendidly summarizes her Childbirth experience, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
Jesus tells the disciples, “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (v22) If Mary indeed hears Him say this, her mind flashes on her struggles to safeguard her joy. The movie moment imprinted on our brains—the bucolic tranquility of the star-lighted stable—is short-lived. Big trouble brews in Jerusalem. The Magi have tipped Herod off that a potential challenger has just been born. His astronomers verify the possibility. It’s quickly apparent Mary and Joseph are at the center of a political crisis that could end tragically for their Newborn and them. They can’t go home. They can’t remain in Bethlehem. At the urging of an angel, they seek asylum in Egypt until the storm passes. They make huge sacrifices and take enormous risks to prevent Herod from stealing their joy. It’s unlikely they realize it amid their chaos, but in retrospect, they may figure it out: while the Child Who brought them great joy also jeopardized it, His presence with them inexplicably secured their joy from loss. That’s what Jesus wants the disciples to see. Because He’s with them, their joy is at risk. They will suffer pain and grief. Yet their anguish will give birth to greater joy that no one can take from them.
Pregnant with Joy
The parallels between Mary’s labor and the disciples’ anguish awaiting the Risen Christ’s return illuminate our awareness that lasting joy entails gestation. The joy Christ gives isn’t a by-product of happy coincidence. It’s seeded in us and takes time to develop. A number of times we hear Jesus mention this. In John 15.11, He says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” When He prays in Gethsemane, He tells God, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (John 17.13)
We are pregnant with joy—complete joy, the full measure of Christ’s joy. It is in us. While we marvel at this, we’re also aware joy’s delivery doesn’t come easily. We will labor to bring it to life. There will be dark hours of pain and anguish. And once we give birth to joy, its presence in our lives will stir jealousies and paranoia in others that will inherently create risks. We will struggle to safeguard our joy, making unforeseen sacrifices and perhaps even moving far from what we know to see that it survives. But once joy is born, its presence guarantees it cannot be stolen. The whole thing is a mystery. It makes sense until we try to make sense of it. Subjecting it to logic tears the concept apart. Joy after pain; joy in jeopardy is joy that endures. Cinematically, it doesn’t play. But somehow in Christ's reality it does.
We will labor to bring joy to life. There will be dark hours of pain and anguish. Once we give birth to joy, we will struggle to safeguard it. But no one will be able to take it from us.
Postscript: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
A Christmas favorite beautifully performed by Celtic Woman: Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”