Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas, Childbirth, and the Cross

              [Due to popular demand, I am posting the text of the talk I gave in church today, with slight editing. My only request is that if you quote it, please also attribute it to me.] --Gail Homer Berry

              Every Christmas, I think about childbirth. Baby Jesus. Young Mary, “great with child,” and her terror, sorrow, and joy. My own experiences with labor and how they relate to the atonement.

Childbirth is a transcendent act, replete with the drama of every human emotion. A woman, in partnership with God, brings a new life into the world, full of purity and potential—a life that will, eventually, end in death. Mary epitomized this balance when she delivered the Savior into the world he would one day redeem.
Every mother cuddles her baby protectively and says “Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up. The world out there is scary.” I can imagine Mary’s feelings at the prospect of what her own baby would, all too quickly, face.
Childbirth is such a transformative experience, the scriptures frequently use it as a metaphor. The second coming and millennium is compared to birth: a short, intense season of suffering, followed by long years of joy. (Isaiah 13:8) Isaiah likens labor to the atonement when he describes “the travail of [the Lord’s] soul.”  (Isaiah 53:11)
Although childbirth cannot compare to the infinite agonies of the atonement, it is the closest I can come to understanding what the Savior suffered.
I am not trying to exclude men, or women who don’t have children. I am just “likening the scriptures” unto myself as best I can, and sharing my personal experience with you.

The first time I gave birth, I was young and terrified. We had recently moved to a new city and I did not know many people. September 11th happened shortly before my due date, and I worried that travel restrictions would mean that relatives couldn’t arrive in time to help me.
I thought about a young Mary, travelling to an unknown city, surrounded by strangers, and scared by the uncertainties of a first-time delivery.

The second time I went into labor, we headed to the hospital promptly. Sadly, Daniel was in a hurry and I simply didn’t have time for any pain medications.
I would have done anything to make the pain stop—even reveal top-secret nuclear launch codes, if I’d known any.
As C. S. Lewis said, however, pain does teach us a great deal. My hour of agony gave me a much better appreciation for how the Savior suffered.
I had some experience with the process, and the nurses were experts. For Jesus, it was unique. Although my nurses yelled at me a little, trying to cut through my hysterical screaming and get me to focus, at least they were trying to help. Jesus endured soldiers mocking him and making the situation worse. There were things I could do to shorten the process. When the nurses told me to push, I did. I wanted it to end. The Savior could not “cut corners.”
In our modern society, a woman in labor usually has some control over the situation. If she requests an epidural early and often, she’s more likely to get it before the pain grows too bad.
She might say “I’m going to try going natural. We’ll see what happens. The pain isn’t that bad yet…” Eventually the pain gets bad enough that she “breaks” and beg for meds. Then she discovers a problem: she’s in the back of the anesthesiologist’s queue, and the pain, which has already progressed to “I can’t stand it!” continues to get worse for the next half hour.
If she waits too long, the window closes. No matter how much she begs, she can’t get drugs and must  endure natural childbirth. She is powerless to stop, slow, or mitigate the process. At a certain point, her options end.
Epidurals are a recent innovation, though. For thousands of years, childbirth was unavoidably painful and usually dangerous. The mortality rate for mothers and babies was high. It was called "the valley of the shadow of death" frequently, and with good reason. 
          We frequently say that parenthood gives us perspective about Heavenly Father's infinite love. People who are parents find that explaining the unconditional love we feel for our children is rather like riding a bike: if you've experienced it, no explanation if necessary, and if you haven't experienced it, no explanation is possible. Our feelings are dwarfed by our Heavenly Father's, but it's the closest we humans can come to understanding. 
          Similarly, women who endure terror, pain, and even death to bring a new life into the world have a unique perspective on the atonement. Labor pains may be miniscule compared to the agonies of the atonement, but they are not insignificant--they are the closest we can come to understanding that supreme sacrifice.

After Daniel’s birth, I had an epiphany.
When I am fasting, it turns my thoughts to God. An internal conversation sounds like this:

BODY: I’m hungry. There’s some bread in the pantry—
SPIRIT: --Right, but I’m fasting.
BODY: Still hungry.
SPIRIT: I’m trying to obey the Law of the Fast.
BODY: Still hungry.
SPIRIT: This is an exercise in self-control. I need to prove to myself that my spirit is stronger than the flesh.
BODY: Still hungry, and pride doesn’t help.
SPIRIT: I have a specific purpose for this fast. I need to know if I should homeschool again this year. I want my children to thrive, and I don’t know which situation would best accomplish that. Getting an answer to my problem is more important than food right now.

When I focus on someone other than myself, the hunger abates.
The Savior did not have a single moment of decision where he, metaphorically, waved away an epidural. Yes, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he committed to the atonement, but throughout his hours of torture, he had options. He could have rescued himself, or allowed himself to die early. He did not suffer merely the sins mankind; nor did he endure only our pains and afflictions and sorrows; he also survived the ultimate, constant temptation—to make the pain stop. To quit.
No addict could possibly suffer a more intense craving. And yet, as his physical agony asserted itself minute after terrible minute, he chose, again and again, to continue. I imagine that he thought of me, envisioned my face, and thought of my need for forgiveness. His desire to help me not only thrive, but achieve eternal life, helped him to keep going—a little bit longer. I believe he considered each individual soul he was saving. And he hung on the cross for six hours.

After my travail with Daniel ended, I collapsed, exhausted and shaking. Labor is hard work. Suddenly three months of no sleep seemed like minor inconveniences to pay for the relief of delivery being done.
Alma the Younger spent three days “racked, even with the pains of a damned soul…while…harrowed up by the memory of…many sins.” (Alma 36:17) He too was fervently grateful when it ended and he received forgiveness: “My soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36: 20)
When the Lord had completed his Great Intercession, he proclaimed in relief, “It is finished!” and rested.

The third time I gave birth, I did so in the sorrow of emotional, not physical, pain.
Eve brought forth children in sorrow because physical pain and death were conditions of the Fall. I can imagine her in labor, thinking “Maybe I should never have eaten of that fruit…this was a mistake!” She would also have been saddened because some of her children chose wickedness, as evidenced by Able dying by the hand of his brother.
Mary sorrowed because her baby would not only suffer the normal trials of mortality, but the infinite and eternal torment of the atonement, on behalf of all humankind--including herself.
I brought forth a child in sorrow because I knew the baby was already dead. Five years ago, I bore a stillborn baby girl. Last month we marked Marian’s bittersweet fifth “birthday.”
It was surreal to undergo all the negative aspects of labor without the compensating joys. There is currently no formal revelation about the status of stillborn children. While I have no doctrinal reason to believe she will not be a member of my eternal family, I also have no prophetic assurance that she “counts.” (Though in my personal opinion, she does.)
I would do almost anything to get her back—even endure natural childbirth, if that would help. The Savior was willing to do everything to get us back—even endure an infinite atonement.
Jon and I cannot control the outcome. We can only do our best and live worthy of our temple covenants—and rely on Heaven for hope. Similarly, our Heavenly Father cannot completely control whether he will be re-united with us. Jesus provided the path, but each of us must follow him.

           Great leaders motivate by example. During WWII, King George VI and his wife earned true popularity among their people by choosing to stay in London during the blitz. They voluntarily followed the rationing programs for water, food, and fuel. After Buckingham Palace was bombed, the queen said that she was grateful, because now she felt less guilty when she commiserated with citizens in the East End who had lost everything. Almost fifty years later, when the royal family was being rocked by repeated scandals, and British and international media were criticizing The Royals constantly, everyone still treated the Queen Mother with deference, because she still commanded their devotion. King George and his wife had shared the dangers and deprivations of common citizens, and they did it calmly and cheerfully. The people loved them for it.
Jesus chose to share the dangers, deprivations, and disappointments of the whole world. He does not ask us to meet any challenge which he has not mastered a million times over.
Alma  7:11-12 says “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind…and he will take upon him…their infirmities…that he may know…how to succor his people.”

In ASL, Jesus does not die “for” me, but rather “in my place.”
“Travail” is perhaps the closest human experience to the atonement, since both involve pain suffered in behalf of a newly born, or newly reborn, soul. Birth, baptism, and the atonement all involve blood, water, and Spirit.
My pregnancies have left visible changes in my body. With each successive pregnancy, I managed to lose fewer pounds, but even though I shed all the weight after Eric, I still couldn’t fit into some old clothes; my ribs had stretched several inches.
“For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.” (1 Nephi 21:15)
I will never forget Marian, but it is infinitely less likely that the Redeemer will ever forget any of us.
My stretch marks serve as a constant reminder of how pregnancy and childbirth have transformed me. Similarly, the Lord has “graven [us] upon the palms of [his] hands.” (1 Nephi 21:16)
He understands the physical pains of childbirth or illness. He understands the grief of parents in Connecticut today. He understands the enslavement of addiction or the hopelessness of depression.
Jesus suffered an infinite and eternal atonement. Any heartache you have, he can heal. Whether you have committed sin or are its innocent victim, he “gets” it.
He was born in the lowest conditions. The King of Kings shared in the sorrow, the suffering, and the sins of his people. He “descended below them all” and I worship him for it. His sacrifice "gave birth" to my salvation.
I am grateful for the birth and death of my Savior, and my understanding of my own role as a mother. I am profoundly grateful that his travail made membership in his eternal family possible for me and my earthly family, and I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Other relevant posts include: 

* (about immediately before the stillbirth) 

* (about immediately after the stillbirth)

 * (about the births of all my kids except Jeff)

* (a really long exploratory essay I wrote about questions and uncertainties surrounding Marian's eternal status)


Merinda Cutler said...

I was so happy to see you on the stand today when I visited your ward, since I know you've been lobbying for a talk assignment for a while. But I narrowly missed hearing it (though I did hear some snippets in the foyer, but not nearly enough to get a sense of it). So I'm glad you posted it here for me to ready anyway.

Your thoughts are so poignant and close to home. I'm sorry to hear about your baby Marian. I experienced a similar experience in 2002 when we lost our baby Samuel to exencephaly. You can read some of my thoughts about it here:

Do I get a prize for commenting?

Gail said...

Merinda--thank you for your comment, and for sharing. Your bonus prize is that I commented on your blog. Does that work?

Carolyn said...

Thank you for sharing. I particularly loved the section on Jesus's temptation to just quit the pain and let it be done with, especially the line "No addict could possibly suffer a more intense craving." I had never thought so specifically about how Christ's atonement applied to addictions. Thank you.