I have seen the child in the womb, neither asking to be born or not to be born, biding its time without the knowledge of time, model for the sulptor who would depict the tranquility that inheres before thought, or the purity of thought without language. Its smile forgave the anachronism of the nomenclature that would keep it foetal. Its hand opened delicately as flowers in innocency's grave. Was its part written? I have seen it waiting breathlessly in the wings to come forth on to a stage of soil or concrete, where wings are a memory only or an aspiration.
At the end of the journey of Advent is a birth. In his Journey of the Magi, Eliot makes one of them comment:
were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot
Birth, about which we tend to write with joy, can also be hard and bitter agony. Not just the transitory pain of birthing, but sometimes the death that can come with it. My father would not talk of my birthing. It gave him too much pain; my mother died two days later. I never knew her. My father used to say “you never asked to be born”, to me and felt an obligation to me, the child of his old age. My mother was thirty years younger than him, and knowing that at the age of sixty-two he was unlikely to see me as an adult, he had taken comfort in knowing she would be with me, and might even marry again after his death. He was right about his death, he died at the age of seventy-two; he was wrong about my mother surviving him. Birthing, the theme of our Advent Book this week, is a time of hope, but one tinged with anxiety.
When friends show me scans of their unborn child (I am just at that age where even those of my friends who said they never wanted children seem, now to want them) I coo as I should. There is something so infinitely touching about the child in the womb: innocence personified; life as a tabula rasa with all to come. We know, of course, that that tabula is already imprinted with genetic code, but there is in that scan the human equivalent of the angel in marble – the sculptor will create who we shall be. God shaped us in our mother’s womb; life will chip away at that, and there is that sadness of “never glad confident morning again”. When I look at that old photograph of me in my confrmation dress, all white frills and ribbons, at the time I only thought how poorly white went with my red-hair and freckles; now I wonder how that little girl got to be the skinny bespectacled woman who stares back at me when I do my make-up? Mthr. Carys captures something of this when she writes that the poem captures:
… new life, suspended between conception and birth. It captures a moment both in time and out of time, caught between purity and fall, innocence and wounding, and it brings us a picture of life on the edge of consciousness, creativity and destructionFrequencies of God p. 106
Only nine months earlier than the arrival of the Magi, a young virgin living in Nazareth, betrothed to an older man named Joseph, was told that she would give birth to the saviour of the world. She knew enough about life to know that could not be the case, as she was still a virgin, but when the Archangel gave her the news, and with it a choice, she accepted:
It was not an easy choice. Her betrothed might reject her and scorn her as impure: “An angel did it? You really expect me to believe that? What’s the man’s name?” was a much more likely reaction than acceptance. Symeon would tell her that
(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealedLuke 2:25
In that birth there would be for Mary pain. In our birth there is pain, even if we have no conscious memory of it. In our rebirth in Christ there is also pain, “hard and bitter agony for us”. Like the Magi we are:
We are strangers in a strange land. Those hands open in “innocency’s grave”, ignorant of the “hands growing to gather them”, and we none of us get through this life without being wounded on the way. We have a choice, to walk with him or not. We do not have a choice about being wounded on the way; we have a choice about the way and the healing.
As we enter the week of the birthing of the Christ-child, let us pray for each other and know that we are all one in him. Maranatha!
There is an #adventbookclub using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here: https://canterburypress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9781786220882/frequencies-of-god. We’ll be running this club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments. Other folk doing this are https://grahart.wordpress.com/ and https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/ so please pop over and read their thoughts too!