Not Quite “Away in a Manger”: The Good News of an Unseemly Christmas

This one comes from our dear friend, Jimmy Myers:

“There’s no hope without afterbirth.” I can remember the first time my undergraduate professor said these words. The classroom, already silent with quiet contemplation of the mysteries of Christology, fell, so it seemed, even quieter. There’s no hope without what? What could he mean? Is “afterbirth” really a word that should stand side by side with Christian hope? Is it really part and parcel of the redemptive plan of the Lord, the almighty God, the Creator of all things? Isn’t that a shameful, offensive, even blasphemous thought to think, much less say?

It might be, except that it is true: there is no hope without afterbirth. With our serene and sterile nativity scenes depicting a smiling Mary and Joseph who cradle a pristine and spotless baby, with our various triumphant carols of joy hymning the glory of the birth of the Messiah in a manger in Bethlehem on that “first Christmas day,” with two thousand years of Christendom removing the offense and normalizing the contours of this strange little story, we forget just how bodily, how indecorous, and how bloody the whole thing was.

In spite of our sanitized imaginings, the story of the birth of the Messiah–Lord confronts us in all its harrowing creaturely detail. A young teenage girl becomes pregnant, travels with her husband to Bethlehem to fulfill a government decree – finding housing nowhere else except in a barn. And then, while resting in a stall filled with prickly hay and donkey dung that smells distinctly of all kinds of animal urine, the teenage girl begins to have contractions. As she screams and moans in travail, bit by bit the baby is nudged out of the womb, covered in blood and various other fluids, adding his own screeching to that of his mother’s as the wind touches his naked flesh for the first time. And, of course, what follows this excruciating birth is the second birth – with one final push the placenta which had nourished and cradled the child for nine months is also expelled, joining the infant Christ crying in the cold night air.

In the age of modern medicine it is all too easy for us to forget that birth is and always has been like this: messy, dangerous, unseemly. But all of us were born in this way and so was Jesus Christ. This tiny bundle of wrinkled flesh, this body deformed on account of being squeezed through the birth canal, this little child cradled by fetal membranes – remarkably, impossibly, this one is none other than the Lord of heaven and earth. However shameful and detestable and contemptible it sounds and appears to us, the good news is that our Lord is more humble than we are. He did not blush or shrink back at the thought. He did not stay far off from all the shameful embarrassments of flesh and blood. No, for as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us he was not ashamed to share flesh and blood, to share our body and our birth, to share even our afterbirth (Heb. 2:10–15). He did all this precisely because, as the unconquerable church Father Tertullian reminds us, he “loved even that human who was condensed in his mother’s womb amidst all its uncleanness, even that human who was brought into life out of the said womb … For his sake he came down (from heaven), for his sake he preached, for his sake ‘He humbled Himself even unto death – the death of the cross’ ” (On the Flesh of Christ, ch. 4).

There is no hope without afterbirth, then, because unless the Lord becomes a human – fully human, fully flesh, with all the warts, blood, farts, and, yes, even afterbirth involved – there is no hope that humans can be saved. For – as that old epigram expresses it so well – whatever has not been assumed by Christ has not been saved by Christ. Which is all to say: if he was not birthed like us, if the afterbirth did not follow him into the world, then he wasn’t actually a human and he did not actually bleed for us, he did not actually die for us, and he did not actually rise for us. And if that’s the case, we’re all still stuck in the inescapable morass of our sin, sinking and sagging under the weight of the curse. In this season of celebration, let us not forget to celebrate the fact that we worship the kind of God who was not ashamed to absorb it all, that he was willing to walk the infinitely long way from being God to becoming human, that, in complete solidarity with us, he identified with the totality of being human – even the afterbirth.

 

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