Such a Birth

When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I took a childbirth class at the local hospital where I would be giving birth. It was not a class that favored natural childbirth per se—it was more of an overview of the different ways that women give birth, whether that be with many interventions like epidurals and Caesarean sections, or with few. I loved the vibe of the class—the happy expectant parents, the supportive dads who wanted what was best for their partner and baby, and the knowledgeable, even-keel nurses who taught the material. And while I had not given much thought to childbirth before I was pregnant, I felt confident that I would be giving birth naturally. I’m proud, sometimes unfortunately smug, about the things where I’ve taken the natural route: I don’t wear makeup, I sneak whole wheat flour into the things I bake, I grew up hiking and camping. I even made my own laundry detergent for a few years. It was so obvious: I would be a champ at natural childbirth.

When I went into labor, it didn’t take more than a few hours to disabuse me of this notion. I begged for an epidural long before one could safely be administered (you have to make a certain amount of progress in labor before the anesthesiologist can place an epidural needle in your spine, since in some cases it slows labor down). I walked the halls of the hospital, doubled over in pain yet not making progress, until I was blacking out between contractions. I finally was given narcotics through an IV because I was in so much distress, and it was only through the numbing drugged sleep these provided that I got to the point in labor where I could receive an epidural. When the needle was finally placed, I waited eagerly for relief from the overwhelming pain of my contractions, but it never came. Five percent of epidurals don’t work, and I suffered for three more hours until the anesthesiologist changed the medication. Within a few minutes I found relief and started smiling again, and within a few hours, Lydia was born.

Childbirth can be unpredictable and traumatic, like the first one I experienced, but I’m grateful for the way my eyes were opened and my heart was humbled that first time around. With such suffering and also a new baby to care for, there was no room for pride or smugness, and much of parenting for me has been a continuation of that humbling journey. Childbirth isn’t always so difficult, and I experienced it several more times—once very naturally and quickly, once much longer but with a very effective epidural, and a few times somewhere on the spectrum between those two.

Savior of the nations, come

Virgin’s Son, make here Your home,

Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,

That the Lord chose such a birth.

We will sing this hymn every Sunday during Advent, and at the instruction of this first verse, I marvel that the Lord chose to come into this world through childbirth. Dangerous and messy even now, childbirth has been a threat to babies and mothers throughout time. Because obstetrical records were not routinely kept two thousand years ago, we cannot say exactly what the rates of infant and maternal mortality were at the time Christ was born. But historians estimate that roughly 2.5% of women and 30% of babies died in childbirth. Infection, hypertension, a poorly-positioned baby—these are all risks today, but at Jesus’ birth, they were specters that could kill within seconds or within days.

What is particularly interesting about the words in this first verse is that they are a translation—and they are actually a translation twice over, from Latin to German and then from German to English. Saint Ambrose wrote the original words in the fourth century, in a text called “Veni, Redemptor genitum.” If you translate this Latin phrase directly into English, it would read, “Come, Redeemer of the Nations.” Then in the 16th century, Martin Luther translated the Latin into German, and three hundred years after that, a Lutheran professor and pastor named William Morton Reynolds translated Luther’s German into the English hymn we sing today.

Most of this hymn, even twice-translated, is comparable when you place the different versions side-by-side. However, Ambrose’s first verse goes like this:

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,

And manifest thy virgin-birth;

Let every age adoring fall;

Such birth befits the God of all.

Over one thousand years later, Martin Luther translated the Latin into a German text that would read like this, had it been translated directly into English at the time of its writing:

Now come, Savior of the gentiles,

recognized as the child of the Virgin,

so that all the world is amazed

God ordained such a birth for him.

Whereas today, we sing these words of Reynolds’ mid-19th century English translation:

Savior of the nations, come

Virgin’s Son, make here Your home,

Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,

That the Lord chose such a birth.

While Luther shifts the focus somewhat from the virgin birth to birth more generally, Reynolds decisively moves the language away from Ambrose’s emphasis on Mary’s virginity. While still acknowledging that the Lord was born of a virgin, Luther’s and then Reynolds’ translations emphasize this fact progressively less than Ambrose’s original words do. Today when we sing, “Marvel now, O heav’n and earth, That the Lord chose such a birth”, we dwell on the fact that Jesus was born via the dangerous and painful route of human childbirth. I am grateful for this emphasis because childbirth is so often overlooked by people who don’t experience it.

Saint Ambrose was an unmarried priest, and my guess is that he could afford to spend more time thinking about the theology of the virgin birth than Martin Luther could, as Luther was married and had six children—whose births he most likely witnessed at home. Additionally, the virgin birth was much more of a contested issue during Ambrose’s life than it was during Luther’s, which is one reason Ambrose makes it a focal point in much of his writing. And William Morton Reynolds, whose English words we will sing each Sunday this month, was an abolitionist and the head of a women’s college. Though little is known of his family life, he was probably more in touch with the difficulties of marginalized people than either Ambrose or Luther.

Saint Ambrose was a great theologian and is considered one of the four original “doctors of the Church”—influential men who did their best to protect Christian teaching from heresy and keep it truthful and clear. While I am thankful for the work of these men, sometimes I feel, as an ordinary woman with a large family, like the risks and realities of my life haven’t been very important in the history of Christianity. Yes of course, the birth of Jesus was miraculous because a virgin conceived a child! But I’m thankful to Martin Luther and William Morton Reynolds for shifting our focus for a moment from the fact that Mary was a virgin to the fact that she, with Jesus, experienced human childbirth, just like so many women through the ages. Just like me.

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