If more women were pastors or preachers, we’d have a lot more sermons and books about the metaphors of birth and pregnancy connecting us to the story of God. (I am rather tired of sports and war metaphors.)

The divinity of God is on display at Christmas in beautiful creche scenes. We sing songs of babies who don’t cry. We mistake quiet for peace. A properly antiseptic and church-y view of birth, arranged as high art to convey the seriousness and sacredness of the incarnation.  It is as though the truth of birth is too secular for Emmanuel, it doesn’t look too holy in its real state.

So the first days of the God-with-us requires the dignity afforded by our careful editing.

Because this? This creating out of passion and love, the carrying, the seemingly-never-ending-waiting, the knitting-together-of-wonder-in-secret-places,  the pain, the labour, the blurred line between joy and “someone please make it stop,” the “I can’t do it” even while you’re in the doing of it, the delivery of new life in blood and hope and humanity?

This is the stuff of God.

There is something Godly in the waiting, in the mystery, in the fact that we are a part of it, a partner with it but we are not the author of it. How you know that there is life coming and the anticipation is sometimes exciting and other times exhausting, never-ending. How there is a price that you pay for the love love love.

I was fortunate to give birth to three of my tinies without complications. I find myself thinking of those experiences often during Advent; they are still very fresh for me. My eldest daughter was born in the hospital in a fairly usual way. My littlest girl was born at home, in water, with midwives, a beautiful and redemptive experience for me.

But it’s the birth of my son, my Joe, that stays with me in these winter months.

Joe was an unintended free birth in our building’s parking garage while we were on our way to the hospital. We were alone – no midwife, no doctor, not even in our own home with a clean floor but instead a garage filled with gasoline and tire smells.

My husband was scared; a lot of things could go wrong in this scenario (he had the good sense to act like he was in control though). And we were surrounded by strangers – helpful, concerned strangers but strangers nonetheless – and they were witnessing me give birth.

And yet my body had taken over and all we could do, all I could do, was surrender to that moment fully. Every muscle in my body was focused, my entire world had narrowed to that very moment.  And then there he was, born while I was leaning against our old truck, standing up, into my own hands, nearly 9 pounds of shrieking boy-child humanity, welcomed by my uncontrollable laughter and his father’s uncontrollable relief-tears. A few people applauded.

There wasn’t anything very dignified about giving birth.

And yet it was the moment when I felt the line between the sacred and the secular of my life shatter once and for all.

The sacred and holy moments of life are somehow the most raw, the most human moments, aren’t they?

But we keep it quiet, the mess of the Incarnation, because it’s just not church-y enough and men don’t quite understand and it’s personal, private, there aren’t words for this and it’s a bit too much.

It’s too much pain, too much waiting, too much humanity, too much God, too much work, too much joy, too much love and far too messy. With far too little control. And sometimes it does not go the way we thought it was supposed to go and then we are also left with questions, with deep sadness, with longing.

My entire concept of God shifted in that moment, leaving my brain and my life and my theology to catch up with what my soul now knew deep. I could never see God as anything other than through the lens of the Incarnation, of his Father-Mother heart and his birth now.

No theologian or counter-circumstance-experience can take away from what I know, what many mothers the world over know in their heart of hearts about loss and birth and raising babies and real transformation: it’s Love and it is sacred and it is human and it all redeems.  The very truth that God put on flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood through birth, even – especially –  that experience of birth, now showing us what it means to be truly human.

Mothers can tell this part of the story this Christmas, the glimpse behind the veil, the life lived in the in-between of the stuff of God.

There is a story on your lips, isn’t there, mama? of how you saw the face of God in the midst of fear or pain or joy and understood, really understood, Mary, not kneeling chastely beside a clean manger refraining from touching her babe, just moments after birth but instead, sore and exhilarated, weary and pressing a sleepy, wrinkled newborn to her breasts, treasuring every moment in her heart, marvelling not only at his very presence but at her own strength, how surrender and letting go is true work, tucking every sight and smell and smack of his lips into her own marrow.

God, Incarnate, Word made flesh, born of a woman and the Holy Spirit.

We can tell the true, messy stories of the Incarnation.

Emmanuel, God with us.

May we recognise the miracle of the Incarnation, not in spite of the mess, but because of the very humanness of it.

This is an edited post that originally appeared on 14 December 2011 at A Deeper Story.

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  • J

    Beautiful, and there is much truth in what you write… and yet, from the beginning of it, I felt excluded. Please keep in mind that not all women are mothers (either by choice, or desperately wishing to be but unable; or they are mothers, but have not carried and birthed a child, themselves). To word this as if all women share in this childbirth experience, like it is an essential part– almost a requirement– of being a woman, felt very excluding. This lovely piece could’ve referred to *mothers* (since that is the group you truly speak of– not of *women*) and been just as lovely and meaningful– I would argue, even more so.

    • G

      @J – you’re seriously telling this woman that something she has written from her part needs to be more inclusive to fit you into it? Nothing she said was exclusive! It’s so maddening to read replies like yours. You are the one who is being exclusive by not allowing her to express her own thoughts the way she wants to.

      • G – thanks for defending me, but I see, J’s point. I used “women” and probably should have used “mothers” particularly since so many can’t or decide not to have children. I appreciate your quick heart for me and my little essay, though. Blessings.

    • Andrea

      I suppose when a women writes about being barren she better think twice for fear of excluding women who have given birth? It seems this post was written for both men and women. We must read the whole story, the whole Bible…Zechariah and Elizabeth too and the stories of everyone because the story and the incarnation are not exclusive.

      • You’re right, that is exactly what I wanted to communicate, Andrea, but I also see J’s point that my word was “mothers” not just “women” since that isn’t necessarily the case. But thanks for catching my heart – I appreciate it!

    • I’m sorry you felt excluded, J. Not all my intention. Thanks for your perspective.

  • wow, sarah, this made me weep. stunning and achingly, beautifully true. YES.

  • SortaCrunchy

    The messy stories of incarnation. GOD WITH US. May we never lose the wonder of it all.

  • Sharon O

    Beautiful…. excellent and so real. Thank YOU

  • Love. Birth is so messy and so raw. It takes away my breath still even after seeing it over and over…it doesn’t lost it’s magic.

  • Maya Resnikoff

    This was beautiful. I’m not (yet) a mother, and I’m certainly not a Christian, but this communicated your experience and theology so clearly and so potently. It also lined up with what my mother has shared with me about her experiences giving birth, and the awareness of God that she felt at those times. I really appreciated this.

  • Erin

    Amen, Amen, and Amen. Thank you.

  • Gretchen

    Beautifully put. My husband and I are in the midst of the when/how/if we want to have children discussion and this so clearly sums up how I feel about it. I don’t know that there’s a good enough reason to be able to convince anyone to have children other than a pull to have them, to feel your life connected to something so much bigger than you. Thank you for reminding me that the doubt and the uncertainty and the messiness are part of the joy.

    • Absolutely. Praying that you are lead by the Holy Spirit as you decide how to live your life.

      • Judy

        I absolutely agree with you about the beauty of giving birth. There is nothing more beautiful and breathtaking than experiencing birth. I agree about a woman who has given birth being able to relate to Mary.and what she must have gone through as a woman giving birth to her son. I do however feel that the incarnation has everything to do with Jesus though. I am not so sure we are to magnify Mary and her delivery. Although his birth is all a part of Jesus being all man, He was also all God. God/man that is what the incarnation is. That is probably the reason that most pastors when telling of His birth leave the messy part out of it. It is all about Jesus.

  • Jessica Heights

    Oh yes. We GET it!!!

    So beautiful, Sarah, as always!

  • I love this piece, and am also very nostalgic about it because it was the first thing of yours I ever read. Thank you for your words – gosh, I can’t imagine not reading them regularly.

    • Oh, that makes me happy, K! I didn’t know that. Thank you.

  • mothering spirit

    This is phenomenal. Just God-soaked, all of it. You are already preaching.

  • love this. I didn’t have an uncomplicated birth, but when they stretched my arms straight out on the operating table, I understood God’s love then too. These stories are so deeply important. Keep telling them!

  • Sharen

    Oh, wow. I just love this. I gave birth to my first child, a son, just a month ago and the experience has changed my thoughts on this Christmas season already. Birth is so beautiful, but it is also messy, and isn’t that life too. I am humbled that God would come to us in this way.

  • I’m not sure why we’re so afraid of the humanity of Christ. But oh, my faith is so much richer when I know that God was one of us. The messy, loud, gross part is what makes Him one of us. And it is beautiful.

  • lindsholifield

    well, now i’m crying. oh, so good.

  • I’ll never forget reading this the first time, nor here, again.

  • Love, love, love, Sarah Bessey.

  • Sarah, this is an absolutely beautiful piece of writing. You have a great gift for spilling your heart onto a screen. Thanks for sharing!

  • Catherine Trieschmann

    I linked back to your birth story…bawling!!!

  • Beth Anne


  • K.Y.M

    From David Wright’s Bethlehem Sonnet III:

    I prefer the brightly painted scenes. Child
    and mother transfixed in light—winter wild
    tamed like sheep, grazing, safe in the distance.
    I was not raised to stand the constant stench,
    to believe sand and blood and calluses
    beautiful as stars. To view this mess as
    miracle I will have to come stumbling
    over myself, hurting to bend, mumbling
    doubts and rising with anything but sense.
    Lower my eyes from the sky. Make me wrench
    neck and mind. What kind of disappointing
    God arrives like an infant, anointing
    its slight body with dust and afterbirth?
    God’s wild, homeless scent, constant on my skin
    from, just once, having knelt at Bethlehem.

    • Beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that!

  • Like yours, my thoughts often turn to my birth experiences during Advent. But this year – because I have a two-month-old – I’ve been thinking more of Mary and Jesus during their first few months together. Did Jesus nurse easily? Did the maker of day and night confuse the two? Did Mary feel as much rage and sadness as love while her hormones heaved?

    • I wonder that, too, Christie. so many details I long to know!

  • This was one of the posts that made me fall in love with your wisdom, with your spirit,with your gift of words. Because it’s so true (and so beautifully expressed). We women, we share a secret this season. I can’t read the Christmas story without lingering over Mary and Elizabeth, without sensing the cord that stretched through the generations between me and them, and knowing with a quiet certainty that they got this all the way in their marrow.

  • Lindsay Privette

    Oh. I read and loved this the first time you posted it, last year. This year, though, I am 15 weeks pregnant and will have to wait until I get to the privacy of my living room to read it through. I started tearing up just a few paragraphs in. We miss so much of what God wants us to know and experience when we get that screwed up idea that God is a white man… Thanks for reposting!

    • Oh, bless you, Lindsay. You’re in the work of it right now.

  • This is the first time I learned of your beautiful voice … and I LOVE this post more than I can say.

    • I remember you mentioning that once, and it’s had a special place in my heart for that extra reason now.

  • My second birth was also accidentally unattended — although we had planned to give birth at home, so it wasn’t in a parking lot! — and I also trace a kind of spiritual transformation to that moment. We have the cocktail of surrender and control a little backwards in our expectations for women, especially in the history of the church. Discovering just how capable I was of total surrender to the birth process — without anybody else forcing me or facilitating me — just straight up contact between a woman and the will of God. Honestly, I think it taught me how to pray.

    • Wow, that is really profound, ESther. Thanks for sharing that!

  • A

    I loved this piece, both as a biological mother and and adoptive mother. My birth experience with my first son was absolutely one of the closest I have danced with the divine. Both surrender and strength. And, this season I am leaning on so heavily ‘Mary’s Song’, in which she questions if she is truly capable of the monumental tasks God is asking of her, as I mother my attachment-challenged adopted son. Both surrender and strength.

    • Surrender and strength, absolutely – bless you, A. You’re doing the stuff of God every day.

  • pastordt

    Oh my, YES. So true, every word. Every groan, every ounce of bodily fluids, every tear. Real, raw, messy. And holy. Thank you.

  • “The divinity of God is on display at Christmas in beautiful creche scenes. We sing songs of babies who don’t cry. We mistake quiet for peace. A properly antiseptic and church-y view of birth, arranged as high art to convey the seriousness and sacredness of the incarnation. It is as though the truth of birth is too secular for Emmanuel, it doesn’t look too holy in its real state.”

    Yes! I especially dislike it when preachers talk about birth like it is some great mystery, too gory and best left to be glossed over. Thank you, thank you for this.

    • I know, I was thinking how awesome it would be if mothers got up to tell their stories and how they see God in this thing we do. Would be powerful!

  • Shauna

    Sarah, that last article you posted was so thought-provoking. The line about how we sing songs about babies that don’t cry really struck a chord with me. I had to write something about it myself because it was such an interesting idea. I am not asking you to read it, but just…thank you for the inspiration!

  • Kathi

    Your story says EXACTLY my thoughts after giving birth….nursing babies…body and blood given for us….I cannot begin to understand the incarnation without our female experience. And today as I grieve my now empty nest–those births were 19 and more years ago–and wait on what God is knitting together for our future—you have graciously reminded me that again we are pregnant, in advent, waiting in a mess (part of our home was destroyed by a tree falling in it during a storm AND my husband has been unemployed but is now doing a continuing education unit to open up new venues for work) and it is hard, and It IS Well with My Soul.

    • Oh, gracious, Kathi, so sorry about your home! Praying as you live in this “in-between” part of your own right now.

  • Rachael

    Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful! I know that after having my first child, the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection all took on such a deeper meaning. Reading this post right now causes me to remember the baby I lost four years ago this week and the comfort I found in knowing that God the Father truly understood my pain. You are so right in saying that too often we try to “clean up” Christianity, but it is truly about a bloody birth and a bloody death that can cleanse us all.

  • Margaret Ann

    Thank you. My most creative friends have the “messiest” homes. We forget, “The sacred and holy moments of life are somehow the most raw, the most human moments, aren’t they?”

  • Tami

    Your words are beautiful.Thank you for showing me a different picture of our Savior’s birth … one that makes him more human than I’ve ever imagined. You are so right: we gloss over the “mess” of his birth, but only by that mess were we saved.

  • 35 weeks pregnant with my first child has changed the way I have experienced Advent this year.

  • Mike Smith

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. I’d never considered before that Jesus was blood-smeared at His birth and His death, but that occured to me while reading this. Bless you and yours.

  • I loved reading this again. Birth is human but it is also so obviously otherworldly.

  • I almost want to send this to my (female!) Pastor. Beautiful post. Thank you.

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  • I am so grateful for your words. I have none of my own at the moment, just…thank you.

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  • zomerhuis

    Much about loving gets messy! There is not right way to do it! Surrendering to the Spirit and staying close to the Word and God’s people can channel our love into promoting The Kingdom of Love,

  • Becki

    Thank you! I remember being Mary in a live Nativity with my 3 month old and getting so embarrassed when he started crying because he was cold and tired and hungry. A wise older mother came to me and told me not to worry, that she was sure Jesus cried too. It totally changed my outlook on the Christmas story. It’s true that we have sanitized the nativity to the point that it has more in common with flying reindeer than real life messiness and I think that does a real disservice to our “non-church” friends who find nothing to connect to. I appreciate this post and appreciate you sharing your experiences.

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  • Mousemama

    Thank you so much for writing this. My lovely mother-in-law sent me a link to your wonderful essay last year while I was eagerly expecting our first child (and grumbling over the uncomfortable-ness of pregnancy) and it resonated with me. I just went back and re-read it through the lens of childbirth and motherhood and it resonated even more. Thank you.

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  • NinetoPhive

    Your truth is poignant and insightful as always, but MAN the beauty of your writing style really struck me with this piece.

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  • I love love this… For me…giving birth…even so many years ago… Is so very fresh… I think it is a moment when Heaven is cracked right open and we experience the purest love humanly possible…the closest to Divine we will ever know… For all the inconviences and pain this child has caused…the moment life breaks forth… A river of raging love comes pouring out… Love we cannot contain or control…love so pure…based on nothing but love…nothing done to earn it…and it is actually quite the opposite… But Love covers all the pain and sorrow… Love and joy fill a heart so deep and wide.. It must be poured out. Sadly, human love, so quickly can become tarnished…become so conditional and preformance based…. But thanks be to God…His love never ever is tarnished ….it is the same always ….a river of pure love that longs to be poured forth. So yes…woman get a deeper experience of this Holy Moment God has gifted humans with… His gift to say… This is a drop of what My Love feels like… Oh my…being made one again with His pure love…it’s just too much to imagine!!!

  • Shelley

    Lovely post, thank you for sharing it – too often I tend to reserve faith for my mind and my heart, and I am always surprised, in a really good way, when it bursts into my physical life. Which is incarnation. profound. thanks. And congratulations too. 🙂

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