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Laboring Mothers

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

“As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” – Isaiah 66:13 (ESV)

Theotokos (God-bearer)

Scripture is like a scrapbook of pictures of the universal facets of motherhood: There is Eve, the Biblical mother of the human race, whose name in Hebrew means “life” or “to breathe” (Genesis 4:1); there are barren women, desperate to be mothers, like Sarah, who resorted to surrogacy, Hagar, the rejected surrogate (Gen. 16-22); Rebekah, who experienced a difficult pregnancy (Gen. 25:21), and later jockeyed and manipulated for her sons’ futures (Gen. 27); Leah, a less-favored wife who was blessed with many children (Gen. 29:31), and Rachel, the favored wife, who was doomed to die in childbirth on the road to Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19); Tamar, who impersonated a prostitute to gain the child she was owed under Levirate law (Gen. 38:11-30); the widowed Ruth, barren in her first marriage to a young man, who became a mother in her second marriage to an older man (Ruth 4:13-17); Hannah, whose despairing prayer led her to pledge her firstborn to Yahweh’s service (I Samuel 1:11); the desperate Widow of Zarephath, facing the starvation of her family (I Kings 17:7-16) Mary the mother of Jesus, the Theotokos (“God-bearer”), a teenager who bore the scandal of unwed pregnancy before finally bearing the Savior of the world (Matthew 1:19); and the mother of the Sons of Zebedee, who prayed the worst prayer ever (Matthew 20:20).

But the One who sets the bar for them all is God as a mother-figure for all creation, promising never to forget us, always to protect us, nurturing us, weeping over humanity, disciplining us in our wayward ways, never letting us wander off forever, constantly rescuing us from ourselves. And anticipating the difficulties of motherhood, God wrote instructions to our children in stone, with the guarantee of a reward for good behavior: “Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you,” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16).

My favorite metaphors, though, are the upended concepts of birth and death, first explained to Nicodemus as “You must be born again/from above” (John 3:1-21), and pictured in the story of Lazarus, “reborn” from his tomb - a precursor of the coming resurrection of Christ from his own tomb, as the guarantee of our own resurrection to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:35-50). There is a Middle-eastern tradition, that when a laboring mother is experiencing the grief of a difficult birth, the midwife asks the mother what the name of the child is going to be. The midwife, armed with the name, then crouches down between the mother’s knees and shouts into her womb, “__________COME OUT!” Jesus – as a figurative midwife – standing in front of the tomb-turned-womb, shouting from the midst of his convulsive grief (John 11:38), “…Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43), is a precious picture and prefiguring of the labor He will undergo on our behalf on the cross, and the sure promise of resurrection following after the pain. One day everyone – women, whether mothers in this life or not, as well as men – will understand what each birth, of every child - planned or “unplanned,” is teaching the world.

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