The part of the story we'd rather forget

Unless you are a part of a church that follows the liturgical calendar, you might not know that The Twelve Days of Christmas refers not only to a really annoying Christmas carol (FIVE GOOOLLLDDD RINGS!!), but also to the season of Christmas. That's right, Christmas is not just one day, it's twelve days, and it doesn't even start until December 25th. It ends the night before Epiphany, which is today, January 6th, the day the Magi finally show up. We usually crowd them into the stable with the shepherds and the bewildered Holy Family, but actually it takes them 12 days to find the baby Jesus. They were taking their directions from a star, which I guess takes longer.

Every year I really enjoy the memes about how if the three wise men had been women, they would have asked directions, shown up on time, and brought useful gifts like diapers and a casserole. But instead they brought gold and some spices, for which I'm sure Mary sent them a lovely thank you note, wishing all the while that they'd included a gift receipt.

Jan de Bray.  The Adoration of the Magi.  1674, oil on canvas, Historical Museum of Bamberg, Germany.

Jan de Bray. The Adoration of the Magi. 1674, oil on canvas, Historical Museum of Bamberg, Germany.

So Christmas ended yesterday, and today is Epiphany, and we celebrate the Magi finally finding Jesus by eating King Cake and starting to get excited about Mardi Gras. But for me, there is always a shadow to this day. As much as I love an excuse to eat cake, I can't think about the Three Kings without also thinking about the babies who were the tragic casualties of the Magi's trip to see the baby Jesus.

It turns out that the memes aren't entirely accurate, and the Magi actually had asked directions. Before finding their way to Bethlehem, they stopped in to see Herod, who was king of Judea at the time. In what had to be a pretty bonehead move, they asked him,

Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.' --Matthew 2:2-5

Super job, "Wise" Men. Which of you had the bright idea to ask the sitting, irascible king where the new rival to his throne had been born? Herod was scared, but he pulled it together enough to tell the Magi how to find Bethlehem and to ask would they please let him know when they had found this baby-king? Because he would love to go and honor him, too! No really! (Not really.)

But God sent an angel, who had already been very busy in the Christmas story, to fix things. This angel had already appeared separately to Mary and Joseph to explain how Mary was pregnant before the wedding, but that everything was going to work out. Now the angel tells the Magi not to go back to Herod and tells Joseph to hit the road to Egypt, because when Herod finds out he's gonna be sore. Then comes the part where Jesus became a refugee, and we stop reading because that's all there is to the Christmas story.

Only, that isn't all there is. There is more to the story. The worst, the absolute worst part, comes in the very next verse.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. --Matthew 2:16

All the babies. Murdered. No wonder we stop reading at verse 15.

Lucas Cranach the Elder.  The Massacre of the Innocents.  circa 1515, oil and tempera on lime, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Massacre of the Innocents. circa 1515, oil and tempera on lime, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

There is so much to see in this painting. In the upper left, the Holy Family escapes to safety. Top center: King Herod watches the spectacle. In the foreground, soldiers overpower distraught mothers. And in the center, a pile of murdered babies.

No one wants to look at this.

But we do need to know about it. We do need to acknowledge this part of the story. The part that makes us want to hide our eyes.

Because, this still happens. And not just in far-off, war-torn, poverty-stricken lands. Here. In the United States of America. Right here, a measure of protection is offered to one group, while the babies and mothers of another group suffer cruel injustice.

Today I read an article stating that black babies in Wisconsin face the same risk of death as babies in Syria. Things are pretty messed up in Syria right now, so you'd expect it to be rough on a vulnerable population like newborns. But why should black babies in Wisconsin face the same high risk of death? And it's not just in Wisconsin that's it's bad for black babies. The CDC report that the article was based on stated: "For infants of non-Hispanic black women, the lowest mortality rate of 8.27 in Massachusetts was higher than the highest state rates for infants of non-Hispanic white (7.04) and Hispanic (7.28) women." Why?

Because of racism. 

And, it's not just black babies that are dying at an alarming rate. As NPR and ProPublica have been reporting, mothers and babies of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in the US are not faring so well. But the CDC reports that black mothers are dying at 3 to 4 times the rate of white mothers in the United States. Regardless of income level, black mothers die more often. Why?

Because of racism. Because of our racism, black mothers and babies are dying at an incredibly high rate. 

I want to look away from this, just like I want to stop reading the Christmas story at verse 15. I don't want to face that this happens, that mothers and babies are dying. But we have to look.

Léon Cogniet.  Le Massacre des Innocents.  1824, Museum of Fine Arts, Rennes, France.

Léon Cogniet. Le Massacre des Innocents. 1824, Museum of Fine Arts, Rennes, France.


Women are afraid for their own lives, and for those of their babies. What are we going to do about it? 

As a birth advocate and as a person of faith, I feel an ethical obligation to speak up about the shameful lack of care that we as a society show to mothers and babies, particularly black mothers and babies. I plan to help organize a March for Moms this spring in my city. I vote for politicians who vow to address healthcare disparities and who support paid parental leave. I educate new parents on how to advocate for their rights in birth. I volunteer my time to support new mothers in my community who feel vulnerable and alone. This is a start, and what I can do.

What can you do?

You can support Improving Birth, a consumer advocacy organization in the US whose mission is to "inform, support, engage and empower consumers, community leaders and providers with powerful tools to improve birth." 

You could help organize and/or attend a March for Moms in your area.

And we could all work A LOT harder at examining ourselves and our communities and the inherent racism that continues to oppress people of color. This is exceptionally difficult to do. But it is what has to happen if we are going to make a difference in the lives of the babies and mothers most at risk.

It's time to figure out why black lives don't seem to matter as much. It's past time to do something about it.

A Liturgical Calendar Pop Quiz

What are the three main Christian feast days?

(hint: a feast day is a high point of religious observance and celebration in the life of the church)

Did you even know there are three? You can name two, anyway, even if you haven’t been to church in a while, or didn’t pay too much attention even when you were there.

There’s Christmas.

And Easter.

Those are the two everyone knows. But the third major feast day, the only one not completely co-opted by popular culture, and therefore known only to die-hard liturgical calendar fans (yes, we do exist) is: Pentecost. Now you know.

Pentecost was celebrated this past Sunday. It is observed 50 days (7 weeks) after Easter and commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ apostles. As my three-year-old learned in her Sunday school class, “It’s the Church’s birthday!”

That got me to thinking. ALL THREE of the main Christian feast days are about birth. No really. Christmas is obviously about birth. The actual, physical birth of Jesus, to be precise. The other two are metaphorically about birth. Easter commemorates Jesus’ return to life, or re-birth, you might say.  Plenty of people have already made connections between the tomb and the womb.(Though I think that is the stuff of another post entirely.) And now Pentecost is another metaphorical birth, this time of the church, as it begins to move from being a loose group of Jesus-followers to an organized religion.

So–if the three high points of Christian life are about birth, then it follows that birtheology is not just for mommies and babies (in case anyone out there was thinking that). Christmas, the actual birth of Jesus; Easter, the metaphorical rebirth of Jesus; and Pentecost, the metaphorical birth of the church: these three events are central to the Christian faith.

Birth is central to the Christian faith. 

And if birth is central to the faith, then we’ve got some work to do in uncovering a theology of birth. This means examining what birth is, how it affects those who participate in it (both women and men, both those actually giving birth and those who support them), what it teaches us about the life of the body, soul and spirit. This is true even if we are “only” regarding birth as a metaphor, since to understand a metaphor one must first thoroughly examine what it refers to.

For whatever reason, we as Christians have largely neglected to give serious thought to this central element of our own faith. But that’s all about to change, y’all. Keep reading, and keep commenting–there will be more birtheology to come!

Introducing: Birtheology

Here’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while: I’ve been frustrated, annoyed, even angry that though women often describe giving birth as a spiritual experience, there is not much out there in the way of connection between religious belief (specifically Christian, as that is my faith tradition) and childbirth.  I have searched and searched, throwing the weight of my considerable research skills (gleaned over the course of 11–yes ELEVEN–years of higher education) and have come up with…not so much.

A good part of what I have found has focused on submitting to one’s proper place as wife and now mother in “God’s plan” for the family and on praying hard enough (i.e., “Having fertility issues? You are just not praying hard enough. Experiencing pain in childbirth?  PRAY HARDER.”).  That’s pretty much all I’ve found in the way of popular literature/blogs, and honestly, I don’t find that these views accord with my own experience of how God works in the world, nor do I find them particularly empowering.  In scholarly literature, there have been a couple of voices over the past 30 years or so who have called for a theology of birth.  From what I can tell, that idea hasn’t made a lot of progress.  I’m not sure why that is, but perhaps it is because there are not many scholars who have both the ability and inclination  to reflect theologically on childbirth.

I approached my own experiences of giving birth by intentionally minimizing medical interventions in an effort to enhance my own physical, emotional and spiritual experience of the process.  So, I had these holistic birth experiences,  AND I am trained to think theologically.  There are not so many people who fit that description.  Thus, I find myself in a unique position: I am an ordained minister, a birth doula, a theological scholar, a mother.  I can write about this, I can make connections between theology and birth, and I can further the (so far) limited conversation on this topic.  So, I introduce to you, dear reader, my new venture in blogging, in theology, in life:

(credit for the catchy title goes to my incredibly creative, talented, and supportive husband, Thomas)

I hope to use this space to work out some thoughts as I prepare to lead a seminar on this topic at my church in the fall.  This seminar will be geared not just toward pregnant people, but also to the whole congregation.  Birtheology is not just for women having babies, and the church as a whole has essentially ignored this transformative event in the lives of the majority of its members for too long.  Ultimately, I would love to put together a childbirth education class for parents as well, with all the usual stuff about the stages of labor, medical interventions, pain management, etc., but also with a focus on the spiritual elements of giving birth.  Of course, publishing some of this good stuff in a journal, magazine, or book some day would be pretty awesome, too.

So, keep reading!  There will be lots more to come.  And of course, if you have thoughts/experiences to share, I would love to hear about them.  The more voices we can add to this void the better