This post was originally shared on Maundy Thursday, the commemoration of Gethsemane. During those evening hours, readers posted their reflections on the atonement of Jesus Christ. On this Good Friday, I invite us all to do the same.
It’s a given that childbirth is painful. Even with the pain relief measures I’ve accepted each time, it has still hurt. A lot. But Thomas’s birth was in a whole different category of pain. He is my seventh child, born ten weeks early after two weeks of hospitalized bed rest. And his delivery brought me to the lowest point I’ve experienced in this mortal body.
It was precipitated by a combination of factors—the physical and emotional stress that had built up for two weeks beforehand, the uncertainty and fear that likely accompanies every premature delivery, and the out-of-my-element feeling that resulted from having this round be so unlike my other childbirth experiences. I didn’t know my own body, I didn’t know what would happen, I didn’t know anything. Every expectation I had about what my labor and delivery would be like was turned on its head. The baby, while appropriately turned on his head, must have been facing the wrong way, which meant that he wasn’t moving along the way he should have been. The anaesthesia failed. And the Pitocin-fueled contractions were enough to push me right over the edge of composure.
Now logically, everything was just fine in that birthing room. The atmosphere was tense because of the increased risk of problems with the baby’s health, and while all possible preparations were in place to temper a full-blown medical emergency, we never had one.
But I had a little emergency of my own.
It came right at that apex when the pain is intense enough to make me wish for a hasty exit from earth, or at least the freedom to curl up into a tight ball and preserve all my strength for weathering the pain. That’s the exact moment when I’m expected to assume a very un-curled-up position and somehow channel all my strength elsewhere. Of course it’s hard. But what I felt went way beyond hard. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I was walloped with a feeling of hopelessness I’ve never felt before during childbirth.
This was new and unthinkable territory. The determination that had kept me engaged thus far—I have to get through this, for the baby’s sake—began to slip. My concern for self was eclipsing concern for other—and not just any other, but the most innocent and vulnerable and dependent and deserving other imaginable.
“Push!” the nurse barked.
“I can’t!” I wailed. “Please get it out. Please.”
The doctor spoke in that calm voice reserved for hysterical patients. “The baby is too small to use forceps safely, Kathryn.” And I didn’t care. I didn’t care. I just wanted to be free from the burning despair that filled my skin, the helplessness of being required to do the impossible.
Despair, for a mother, may be defined as this: being in so much pain and desperation that you consider abandoning your child in order to bring yourself relief.
In young adulthood, when I was first awakening to Christianity, I found it difficult to fully sympathize with Jesus. I didn’t doubt that what he endured was awful, much more awful than anything that man has endured. But after all, he wasn’t a regular guy. Didn’t being a demi-god give him just a wee bit of an edge?
But as my understanding began to mature, I realized that Jesus’ super-capacity did not work in his favor, so to speak. Actually, the opposite was true. Yes, he was stronger—much stronger—than any of us. But that just meant he was able to bear far more. It didn’t make it easier. It just made the depths much, much deeper. And that’s just the beginning. Not only did the depths exceed any place within our ability to grasp, but he also had the capacity to free himself from those depths at any given time.
This realization impressed me afresh every time I read scripture and commentary regarding the atonement. But it wasn’t until Thomas’s birth that I developed true awe for this stunning center truth of Christianity: Christ not only voluntarily suffered beyond our puny mortal comprehension, to free us puny mortals, but also sustained his suffering through his own power. As he made his atonement for us, he didn’t merely submit to pain, he enabled it. The circuit could remain open only through his own unflagging will.
I still cry every time I think about Thomas’s delivery. I’m frightened by the memory of pain so keen, despair so thick. And I’m ashamed of my weakness, ashamed that I had, even for a fleeting time, looked for an out.
But the Lord is wise enough to not offer us outs in times of creative, redemptive extremity. No, that’s a torment he reserved only for himself, in Gethsemane and on Calvary, as he labored in sweat and blood to deliver children of God.
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