It may seem surprising at first thought, but there are startling similarities between the holy work of giving birth – especially when it is one’s first experience of birthing – and the holy work of dying. Both confront one with a journey that one only knows about from others. There is pain involved without knowing what it will feel like (and unless you have given birth yourself, you really cannot imagine, trust me), and how one will bear it (my cheerful vision of giving birth to the music of Mozart dissolved with the first contractions). There is the uncertainty of when exactly this will happen even when the general time frame is clear (“my due date is in six months.” “I have only four months to live”), and of what exactly this will feel like. What does it feel like when one’s waters break? What does it feel like when the process of active dying begins?
Given these similarities, I was intrigued by a recent newspaper article that described changes in our culture’s way of approaching death. Among several new trends in the so-called “positive death movement,” such as death cafés, there is also certified training available now for end-of-life doulas. I had known doulas only as birth and postpartum support persons, most of whom are women, who offer professional care to a mother before, during, and shortly after the birth of her child. Now, there are also certified doulas who offer support and care before, during, and right through the process of dying. Most of these end-of-life doulas also are women.
I could not help but think of Jesus’ death. The women stayed. Maybe the women who remained with Jesus in his end-of-life agony rendered present a knowledge born from within their own female bodies, namely this: that unimaginable pain searing through a body, and water breaking forth, and flesh being torn, and blood flowing profusely are not signs of death alone. They are also the signs of a woman laboring to birth new life.
The thought of Jesus’ death as a form of birthing is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first. Jesus himself evoked the image of a woman in childbirth on the night before he died: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish…” (John 16:21). Indeed, his approaching death came to be described with the very same words: “When Jesus knew that his hour had come…” (John 13:1). More poignantly, Jesus died with a psalm on his lips that images God as a mid-wife. Psalm 22, which begins with the haunting “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” sharpens the sense of Divine betrayal by reminding God of the midwifery God practiced at the psalmist’s birth:
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
And since my mother bore me you have been my God.
It is precisely this contrast between “you are my God from my mother’s womb” (in the translation of the ICEL Psalter) and the sense of now having been forsaken that gives this psalm its bitter depth. For some medieval writers, it was this precisely this imagery of birthing in connection with Jesus’ agony on the cross that captured their imagination. Anselm of Canterbury (+ 1109), for example, prayed: “Truly, Lord, you are a mother; … It is by your death that they [your children] have been born”. And the Carthusian mystic, Marguerite d’Oingt (+ 1310) meditated in one of her prayers:
Are you not my mother and more than mother? … when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; … And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day.
More precisely, Jesus was seen to give birth to the church in his dying. Some medieval visual representations are very precise in rendering this birthing: a tiny ecclesia enters the world through Jesus’ wide-open side wound, which resembles as a birthing canal.
Today, we are regaining some of the connections between birthing and dying, at least in the broader culture, think only of the doulas who support one in birthing and in dying. Why do I have the sinking feeling that the church is behind in this — although it could well be the mother of all doulas, in both the holy work of birthing and of dying.
Featured image: Cruxifixion by Martin Erspamer, OSB, Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Atlanta