By The Rev. J.C. Austin
“The baby is coming.” There probably are other combinations of four words that approach the level of urgency that that phrase generates, but not many, and I can’t think of them.
It’s why giving birth is such a go-to for television and movies looking for high stakes drama: you put a pregnant woman in a situation like a stuck elevator or a traffic jam or an airplane in flight, have her give a sudden gasp of pain and place an instinctive hand on her stomach, and when her companion looks at her questioningly, she looks at them and says, “the baby is coming.”
And the look between them communicates everything: the baby is coming, despite this being a terrible place for it to come, despite there being no resources and plenty of obstacles and probably nobody there who really knows what to do. But none of that matters, because essentially, when labor begins for the mother, the baby is coming.
And thing about babies coming is, they don’t care. They don’t care where you are. They don’t care what you’re doing. They don’t care how bad the timing or the weather or the traffic is. They don’t care if you’ve had your hospital “go-bag” packed for weeks or if you’re just cracking open What to Expect When You’re Expecting for the first time that day. Ready or not, the baby is coming.
Late night host Seth Meyers found this out the hard way a few years ago when his wife gave birth to their second child. As he tells the story, their first child had come quickly, so quickly that he was almost delivered in an Uber on the way to the hospital. So with that in mind, and knowing that second babies often have a shorter labor than first babies, they were determined to be ready. “We were on our toes, based on what had happened last time!” he said incredulously.
Once they realized the baby was coming, when the contractions started: “we didn’t wait a second,” he says; “we didn’t even call the doctor, we went downstairs into our lobby and we started walking out to the car, and all of sudden at the door, my wife stopped, and turned to me, and said, ‘the baby is here.’” If there’s anything that could create a greater sense of urgency than ‘the baby is coming,’ it is ‘the baby is here,’ and that’s what his wife said.
It’s understandable that he would be in shock and denial upon hearing that, and so it’s unsurprising, if unfortunate, that he tried to convince his wife, who had already given birth to one baby, that she was the one who was mistaken. “You only think the baby is here,” he confessed to telling her; “we have more than enough time to get to the hospital.”
She simply looked back at him and said, “The baby is here.” And he looked down, and finally believed her because, as he said, “the only way to describe what I saw is that it looked like my wife was trying to smuggle a baby in a pair of sweatpants.” The baby was, in fact, here; right there in the apartment building lobby, because when a baby is coming, it is coming, ready or not.
It’s hard to imagine that Mary would have said that she was ready when she realized that Jesus was coming. When Mary thought about giving birth to a baby someday, I’m sure she assumed it would be at home in Nazareth, surrounded by loving family members to help her through the labor process and deliver the child. But that is not what happened.
Luke tells us that the Roman Emperor had decreed that everyone had to be registered for taxation in their ancestral homes, and so Mary had to accompany her fiancé, Joseph, from Galilee in the north to Bethlehem in the south, a few miles to the south of Jerusalem. And then, as Luke puts it: “while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
But Luke doesn’t provide any more detail, and Christian art is even less helpful. Apparently, it was considered somewhere between unseemly and blasphemous to depict the Holy Mother experiencing the natural pain and stress of childbirth by church authorities, and that’s the reason there are very few depictions of Mary in labor, and the few that do show her seem very unrealistic, with Mary serenely gliding through labor as if she was just sipping tea out on a veranda on a lovely spring day.
But to think that Mary is too holy to have experienced the realities of a natural childbirth not only has no Biblical justification whatsoever, it misses the whole point of Christmas, of God’s Incarnation in the birth of Jesus Christ. We’ve heard the story and seen the pageants and sung the songs of Christmas so many times that we forget just how counterintuitive this all is.
When God came to earth to save humanity, God did not come in the form of a terrifyingly powerful heavenly warrior-king, leading the army of heaven down to wipe out sin and death and evil and every other power that dared to try and contest God’s power and God’s will for this world. God did not occupy the earth the way the Roman Empire occupied Judea and so many other lands, establishing a peace of submission and obedience through the rule of force.
Instead, God chose to enter this world exactly the way every human being enters this world, born as a human infant from a human mother. And that means there is pain, and stress, and uncertainty, and a lot of messiness, because you can’t have a human birth without those things. Heck, you can’t have a human life without those things.
And to deny that would not only render Mary unhuman, but also deny that Jesus was born a human being, born as a human being is born, born to experience the full breadth and depth of human life in all of its delight and heartbreak, pain and happiness, faith and anxiety, suffering and joy, life and even death. But the whole point of Christmas, the whole point of the gospel, is that in Jesus Christ God chose to come to us and for us and with us exactly that way; because only if he’s fully divine can he save us, and only if he’s fully human can he truly know why.
And the thing is, nothing can stop a baby from coming. You can stop a warrior easily. You can stop a king, no problem. You can stop an army; it’s on every page of history. You can even stop an empire. All of the things that we think of as expressions of power and might can be stopped, and they often are. All of the things that have risen up in this world to claim it and control it, every one of them in history, has crumbled and fallen away into ruin.
Percy Shelley has a famous poem about this called “Ozymandias,” in which the poet hears a traveler describing having gone to Egypt and seen the massive statue that was put up thousands of years ago to honor Ozymandias, generally regarded as the greatest and most powerful of all the Egyptian pharaohs, and considered even a god in his day. Yet the traveler tells the poet that what he found was two vast stone legs sticking up from a pedestal, and a stone head lying next to them, still wearing its sneer of condescension for its subjects and opponents.
“On the pedestal,” he says, “these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains.” This mightiest of mighty rulers, this king of kings, still died, and his power died with him, and all that remains of his works that he calls on the might to look on… is empty sand. Yes, you can stop a pharaoh. Every single one of them has been.
But a baby? No, you can’t stop a baby from coming. That is the certain promise of Christmas, a promise that is perhaps more precious than ever in this world in which so much seems uncertain, with pandemic surges and political divisions and economic inflation and so much more. Yet even and especially in precisely this world: yes, the baby is coming, coming whether we are ready or not, coming to bring the life and hope and peace and joy and love and grace that God intends for us and that nothing in heaven or earth can extinguish for us. Yes, the baby is coming; the baby here. Thanks be to God.