Notes from Underground – June 2021
"The Gospel reveals that hidden within the darkness of death is the womb of God’s mercy. In fact, the word for mercy in Hebrew is the same word for womb. When seen this way, the crucifixion is not only a death story of human violence. It is also a birth narrative."
We continue to explore our theme of contemplative action. This month we look at our theme through the lens of midwifery – something we’ve touched on many times over the years.
We’ve said that contemplative action is the capacity to act without re-acting – to act from a place of deep freedom, with courage, creativity, and compassion. The key here is to act in ways that call forth and participate in the ongoing work of Creation. This is what incarnational leaders do.
Perhaps like me, you were taught that Creation was a one-time event that happened a long time ago. Jesus insists otherwise. Creation, it seems, is a current reality that is happening right now. In fact, Scripture invites us to imagine Creation itself as the womb of God giving birth to new life through the Spirit. The implications of this are huge!
Recently, Lana and I met with Joey Ager and his wife Emily. Joey is the co-director of the hub here in Tacoma. Emily is a midwife. At some point, the conversation turned to Emily’s role as midwife. I asked her how being a midwife has formed her over the years. She said two things that stuck with me. First, she said that being a midwife has convinced her that life wants to happen. We don’t make it happen. It wants to happen, with or without our help. Secondly, she said a midwife is not the center of the show. Emily described her role as important, but off stage. She accompanies, companions, and bears witness, and all of this with the lightest presence possible – one that is meant to help the mother trust her own body and the life that wants to be born. If that’s not a contemplative activist, I don’t know what is.
In the third chapter of John, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, not unlike the dark chaos pictured in Genesis. They talk about the birthing process. On the surface, it’s two guys mansplaining the mystery of birth, which provides its own brand of humor. And yet, Jesus really does seem to know something about it. In fact, he emerges from that passage as something of a midwife at the birth of Nicodemus, who has no idea that he is even being born.
Some births take longer than others. For example, John 3 is the first time Nicodemus appears, meeting with Jesus in womb-like darkness. Then, he makes a brief cameo in chapter 7. He resurfaces again in chapter 19 at Jesus’ burial, with an extravagant amount of anointing spices where he finally seems to get it. It takes 16 chapters for this religious leader to be born, and most of that is off the main stage of the Gospel narrative.
I am grateful to have witnessed this process of being born in my own father’s life. At his funeral, the priest said something very kind. He said my father had become a real “mensch.” It’s an affectionate Yiddish word that means “a genuine human being.” It’s a high compliment. He said, becoming human is not a quick process for most of us. My dad was no exception. Like Nicodemus, it takes a long time for most of us to become human. Of course, the process is quickened by great love and great suffering and we see that quickening among the most vulnerable that Jesus encounters in the Gospels, but for most of us, it’s a long slow birth that takes a lifetime.
The Gospel reveals that hidden within the darkness of death is the womb of God’s mercy. In fact, the word for mercy in Hebrew is the same word for womb. When seen this way, the crucifixion is not only a death story of human violence. It is also a birth narrative. The Gospel of John pays especially close attention to this. For example, when Jesus says on the cross, “Behold your mother” (John 19:27) some commentators have suggested that Jesus is referring to himself. When Jesus breathes his last breath, he releases the Spirit to hover in chaos for three days and call forth life. Can we see? We are back in Genesis 1 at the beginning. Once again, God gives birth to all of Creation from within the womb space of mercy and love. That is how creation unfolds.
This is why in the Street Psalms Prayer of Vocation we pray,
Lord Jesus makes us instruments of your peace and a sign of your unity at work in the world that we might act, reflect, and discern like you. May our wounds and the wounds of this world become wombs of new creation, bearing seeds of new life. Free us O Lord to become midwives to the holy in all things.
Where there is blindness, call forth the gift of sight.
Where there is voicelessness, call forth the gift of voice.
Where there is despair, call forth the gift of Joy.
Where there is isolation, call forth the gift of community.
Where there is fear and violence of any kind, call forth the gift of your peace, born of your love and make us a community of the Incarnation who create cities of peace for all people.
This is a path to contemplative action. Let it be so.