There’s an old theory — speculation, really — that the Gospel of Luke was composed by a woman, or at least a woman helped shape the way the story unfolds. Of course, none of the gospels have titles or named authors, so “Luke” is mere speculation, too.
Luke’s birth narrative includes this deeply intimate and maternal observation, “… All who heard (the story of Jesus’ birth) were amazed. But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
That contrast between amazement and treasuring/pondering seems important. A second- hand story of massive light and terrifying messengers is amazing. Of it is.
But Mary carries away something different, deeper and more nuanced. She holds onto her experience, unmediated by storytellers, and ponders it. The Greek Orthodox call Mary Theotokis, (God-bearer, God-Birther) which seems something to ponder, to be sure.
The poem above is from a collection by the 16th century mystic John of the Cross called Love Poems to God. The painting behind it is The Crowning, by Sara Star in 2004. I like them talking to each other about Theotokis, birthing God.
I’m sure it’s the translation, but there’s an airy nonchalance in the Virgin walking down the road at the opening and closing this poem. Her appearance somehow relies on our desire — “If you want” — even though “my time is so close.”
It’s no secret that I’m drawn to a kind of theology that emphasizes kenosis (divine self- emptying) not as temporary, but innate to whatever we might mean by “God.” God is perpetually disappearing into the world, melting into the cosmos, animating and giving life to that-which-is by that-which-is-not.
Birth is also a helpful way to think about the Divine: Christ perpetually born, creating that-which-is-not. You can either let that thought hang in metaphysical other-worldliness or, “if you want,” you can participate.
John begins by inviting you to help in the birthing process, “under the roof of your soul,” the Virgin grasping your hand as you midwife God into the world. The Virgin, who in Luke gives birth in a stable among animals finds shelter inside the Willing.
But then it shifts, and it isn’t Mary in the soul of the Willing birthing Christ, but the Willing themselves giving birth to creation — “eternally through your womb, dear pilgrim.” “Pilgrim” is a great reminder that now you’re the homeless one looking for shelter.
Like all good poems, the images blur a little, so God, the Willing, and the Virgin each carry something in their wombs. That something is “the divine, the Christ taking birth forever,” and then “creation coming into existence eternally.” And those shifting images, attracts and repels ordered Enlightenment folx.
In order to get inside this poem, this image of God, we have to make a move that embraces paradox. It’s a dance move; it’s got three parts, but only happens in one fluid motion.
- Some of us have or will bear children. Others will not, by choice or biology or circumstances.
- Set aside the specificity of the image of childbirth and at the same time
- Embrace the specificity of the image of childbirth.
- Ask questions, pondering these things in your hearts.
I know I said three, but sometimes you have to go with it.
The possibilities that come out of this pondering speak to real on-the-ground realities: justice and mercy on the macro-level, purpose and meaning-making at the personal level.
What if the holy is intimately found in the minutiae of the profane, what if Creator and Creation are born together in the soul-womb of the Created? And how can that be?
How is God seen in childbirth, in weakness and strength, in the open womb and the grasping hand, in the wisdom of the midwife and the lonely pain of labor? What could it mean?
What about imagining God as wet, soft-boned, blinking blind, and vulnerable is useful?
The Christmas season is ending soon, and the days of darkness are already starting to lighten. I hope these days you can ponder the birth of God in Christ, the birth of creation in God, and your role in it all. I hope this can be a season of birth in you.