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Birth Pangs – 12/24/2011

The Christmas story – the angels, the shepherds, the manger – should be familiar enough to most of us that we know it by rote. That story talks about things happening before Jesus is born, and things happening after, but it doesn’t have much to say about the birth itself. There are other stories, though, that fill in that gap.

In Islam Jesus is a figure held in high esteem, he is a prophet and messenger. He is most often referred to as ibn Maryam – the son of Mary. Mary is a beloved figure in Islam and a prominent character in the Qur’an, which has more to say about her than the Christian Bible does. And so in that book we find a story of the birth of her son.[i]

As Mary is going into labor, she clings to the trunk of a palm tree. And eventually, the pain becomes so great that she cries out, “O would that I had died before this, and been forgotten instead.” But then she hears a voice – whose voice, exactly, is not clear – but one interpretation is that the voice is coming from inside her. We can imagine this as something fantastical: a child speaking aloud before it is even born, and we can also understand it as something that is possible for any one of us at any time: an insight that comes from within, helping us to do something difficult, but very important.

What Mary hears in that moment when the pain seems too much to bear is a voice reminding her that there is a stream of water running beside her, and that she is under a palm tree, heavy with fresh ripe dates. “So eat and drink and refresh yourself,” she hears. That voice, whatever its source, doesn’t take the pain away, it doesn’t eliminate the struggle, but it reminds her of the abundance of the world in which she lives, and the resources she may draw on to sustain her efforts.

In the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, the story is told of the teacher Jesus addressing his students with a warning of things to come. There will be war and the rumor of war, earthquake and famine, people struggling against one another. Yet, it is said that Jesus said, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”[ii]

Now if this were simply a prediction of future events, it would have been a pretty safe one. Earthquake. Famine. War. There has never been a year when one of these things was not present in our world. Certainly not this year. These are things that happen persistently and consistently throughout the world. Calling them birth pangs reminds us that the world is constantly being born – it was for millions of years before the first Christmas, and it will be for millions more after tonight. In every moment, every one of us has the opportunity to participate in the rebirth of the world. We heard earlier the words of Howard Thurman, naming this work, the work demanded of us by this day and every other day:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the [people],

to make music in the heart.

These things can be hard – to pretend otherwise would rob them of their meaning. There is pain and there is struggle in any truly important thing we might set out to do. It takes many different forms. The struggle to become a parent might involve a marathon childbirth or it might mean months or years of filling out forms and waiting in offices trying to get the last pieces of adoption paperwork signed. The struggle for justice may take place in the courts and in the houses of government, but sometimes it must be waged in the streets, as people in Cairo, and Moscow, and Wukan, and Manhattan have shown us this year.

But take courage, friends, and remember: there is a stream of water beside you, and a branch full of fresh, ripe dates over your head. What we lack, we do not lack because there is not enough of it in the world. What we lack, we lack because we have forgotten where to find it, or because we have forgotten how to share.

This is what brings us together into spiritual community: to remind ourselves and each other of the abundance of the earth and of the spirit. To practice sharing the wonder of life and all of its treasures. Each of us is here to labor in the world’s rebirth, and also to serve as midwives for one another. So when one of us cries out, “O would that I had died before this, and been forgotten instead,” there will come another voice from amongst us: “There is a stream beside you, and a branch of dates over your head.”

May it be so, and Amen.

[i] This appears in the Qur’an, sura 19 (the chapter named for Maryam), ayat 23-26.

[ii] Mark 13:8 and Matthew 24:8.


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