[Editorial note: I didn’t realize until after I wrote this sermon that it’s Labor Day weekend.]
I saw a video this past week of two guys who believed their wives were exaggerating when it came to the pain of childbirth. The two of them were talking real tough as they walked into a hospital together. But while they were there, a doctor hooked them up to electrodes that caused contractions in their abdominal muscles of a comparable severity to labor contractions for just one hour. The result was hilarious (and the best part is that their wives got to see the whole thing). Let’s just say that, after all was said and done, those guys weren’t talking so tough anymore.
Obviously, I can’t speak from firsthand experience, but I trust the mothers around me when they tell me that childbirth is one of the most painful things a human being can experience in life. And I also believe those same mothers when they tell me that the pain is worthwhile.
What makes the pain of labor worthwhile is that it is pain with a purpose. It is meaningful pain. A mother willingly undergoes this suffering for the sake of the child, who she loves, and to whom she is giving the gift of life. I have seen this joy that redeems the suffering in my own mother, my wife, and in almost all the mothers I know. They tell me it’s worth it and I believe them.
I was thinking about motherhood and labor pains this week as I read this Sunday’s Gospel. In these verses, there is a tremendous amount of maternal imagery that Mark uses. The first is obvious, as we follow the story of a mother, the Syrophoenician woman who would stop at nothing to relieve her daughter’s suffering. Her motherly love gave her the faith to defy the cultural, religious, and gender stereotypes of her time and stand up to Jesus, demanding healing for her child.
The second maternal reference is less obvious. It takes place a few verses later as Jesus takes a hearing-impaired man with a speech impediment aside to administer healing in private. After placing fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, and touching his tongue, St Mark tells us that Jesus looked up to heaven, “sighed and said to [to the man], “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.””
The key word here is sighed. In the original Greek, the word is estenaxen. In other parts of Scripture, this word is translated as “to groan” or “to grieve.” One word study I consulted defined estenaxen as “to groan because of pressure of being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth).” Estenaxen is the Greek word that is used to describe the kinds of sound that an expecting mother makes in the delivery room. Now… I don’t know about you but, based on this working definition, I think it would be fair to say that our English translation (the NRSV) might be a little too conservative when it translates estenaxen in this passage as “sighed.” I would like you to imagine Jesus crying out with the same intensity as a woman in childbirth. This is an expression of deep, gut-wrenching pain that is undertaken for the sake of love and giving life.
Most immediately, the birth happening in this passage is that of the man who cannot hear or speak. Jesus says to him (and we can imagine him screaming it) in Aramaic: “Ephaphtha!” “Be opened!” Christ’s healing power is opening the doors of communication in this person’s life: allowing him to understand others and be understood by others for the first time in his life. This is no small miracle, especially for us as we read it today in this polarized society where the channels of interpersonal communication are being cut off by the barriers of race, class, politics, and religion. The ability to communicate is central to our identity as human beings, made in God’s image. Jesus gave this man that gift: the gift of humanity that can be seen and recognized by all. When I read the headlines from Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Houston, when I see videos of reporters being gunned down on live TV and photos of dead immigrant children washing up on the beach, I pray that Jesus will once again give birth to that kind of miracle in us today. Lord, open our ears to hear and our tongues to speak clearly because we have obviously stopped communicating with each other.
Speaking more broadly, I believe that Jesus endures the pain of childbirth for all of us in his passion and death on the cross. In this saving work, Jesus is our mother who gives birth to us, in a spiritual sense. This image of Jesus as a pregnant mother might seem strange or disturbing to us, whose theology has been shaped by centuries of sexism in the institutional church, but I assure you that it is thoroughly biblical and orthodox.
You don’t even have to take my word for it; look it up for yourself in Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus did not shy away from referring to himself as a mother.
Writing about a thousand years ago, an English theologian and monk named St Anselm of Canterbury said:
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; *
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride, *
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, *
in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; *
by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.
A few centuries after Anselm, another English monastic, a mystical visionary named Julian of Norwich, wrote:
Christ came in our poor flesh *
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; *
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
Jesus is our mother, who suffers the pains of childbirth for us and for what he intends to be born in us. In the pain of our lives, we too are in the process of birth. St Paul writes to the Romans:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… We know that the whole creation has been groaning (there’s that same Greek word again) in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan (there it is again) inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
All of us, along with Jesus himself and the whole universe, are screaming with the pain of childbirth. The pain in our lives is not meaningless. I cannot and do not claim to know why particular instances of pain and suffering occur, why they take the form they do, or why they are so intense for some and so mild for others. Let me say it again: I know nothing of these things.
But what I do not know, I believe. I believe that our pain can be meaningful, that our pain, if we let it, can make us stronger, braver, more empathetic, and more compassionate toward our fellow suffering human beings (i.e. more like Christ himself). I believe that we will discover the meaning of our pain, not by looking back and asking “Why me?” but by looking forward and asking “Now what?”
I believe the meaning of our pain will become clearer as we hold onto each other’s hands, breathing together like pregnant women in labor in the same maternity ward at the same time, working with Jesus, our mother and our midwife, who is giving birth to himself in us.
“Therefore,” it says in the New Testament book of Hebrews, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart… lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”