For most of history, and in many places still, giving birth is among the most dangerous events a woman will endure.
In the early 18th century, the Puritan minister Cotton Mather published Elizabeth in Her Holy Retirement, a long essay that urged women to spend their pregnancies preparing spiritually for the possibility that they might die giving life.
In her new book, which explores often-overlooked biblical metaphors for God, Lauren Winner describes her discomfort upon reading Isaiah 42:14, when Lord says, “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself. Now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
Just prior to this verse, Winner writes, “God announces that old things are passing away and that God will bring about something new.” That transition looks, appropriately, like childbirth.
Early and medieval Christians were less reluctant than many of us to imagine God in motherly terms. The medieval anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich does so repeatedly in her work Revelations of Divine Love:
A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother Jesus can feed us with himself.
In the ancient world, a woman in labor did not lie numbed while her baby was taken from her body by scalpel or forceps; as Isaiah suggests, she (like women the world over today) groaned and strained and bellowed and struggled her baby into the light. I have always loved the Spanish words for giving birth—dar a la luz, “give to the light,” which suggest to me something like springtime and resurrection.
Imagining Easter as a kind of childbirth offers us another way to understand Christ’s suffering on the cross. Birth is not ...1
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