In Romans 8:22, Paul describes the world giving birth to a new creation: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” This birth involves all of us because, a few verses earlier, we learned that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (8:19, ESV here and above). As we prepare for the birth of Christ, there is much to learn from this image of a world waiting with the eagerness of an expectant mother for a renewed humanity and suffering in the pains of childbirth for the revelation of a new cosmos.
Paul understood Christ to be the first human (consider the clear logic of 1 Corinthians 15:44-50, for example), and therefore Mary gives birth to the second Adam who will finally make possible the creation of the first Adam. Christ as the eternal Son of God is the original form upon which the first Adam was modeled, and Christ incarnate also becomes the firstfruits of a humanity for which the first Adam was always intended but to which he and all of his children had never attained.
Therefore, as Mary carried Christ, she carried all of us in our potential as fully realized humans. Moreover, containing Christ, Mary contained the whole of the new creation that Christ would bring about. Many ancient nativity hymns speak of Mary’s womb as paradise restored. Here is one example:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.
Creation is ongoing and incomplete apart from Christ. Cut off from the Tree of Life, we are estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world. God’s primary work is speaking as His Logos is coeternal with Him. However, God’s secondary work is shaping, and what we experience within the fallen world is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. It is not possible to resist the Logos of God, but God allows us—the material called into existence—to defy the shaping work of His hands to some degree. In fact, our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our rebellion against the image of the Logos that God longs to give to us. We will eventually delight to express this image in its fullness, but our opposition has resulted in a long and difficult labor, one in which the entire world must struggle to give birth to a new creation.
This language of the womb (both Mary’s and the world’s) is the language of creation for Paul. When God shapes humanity in Genesis 2, the same Hebrew verb (yatsar) is used as when the scriptures talk about God shaping each of us within our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–16 and Isaiah 44:24). Likewise, God’s Spirit hovering over the “welter and waste” in Genesis evokes a mother bird spreading herself over the eggs in her nest. The same verb used for the hovering of the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 where we read that God cares for Israel “like an eagle who rouses his nest, over his fledglings he hovers” (Robert Alter’s translation throughout this paragraph).
Clearly, we have two related images with the work of the potter and the labor of a woman giving birth. Jean Hani, in his book Divine Craftsmanship shares wonderful insights into God as a potter (33-37):
The author of Ecclesiasticus pauses a moment to watch the potter at work and gives us a graphic portrait of him: “So doth the potter sitting at his work, turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set to his work, and maketh all his work by number. He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet.” (Eccles. 38:32-33)
This care, this skill, this freedom of the human artist before his work, perfectly evokes the attitude of the Divine Artist vis-à-vis His creature: “All men are from the ground, and out of earth, from whence Adam was created. As the potter’s clay is in his hand, to fashion and order it all: all his ways are according to his ordering.” (Eccles. 33:10, 13-14)
Saint Irenaeus …presents this gloss of Ecclesiasticus (Contra haer. IV, 39, 2): “If then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out.”
In the Letter of Barnabas 6.9 (AD 70 to 132) we read that “the human being is earth that suffers.” Citing this passage, John Behr expounds on our “suffering as we are molded by the hands of God, as clay in the hands of the potter, into his image, a process that continues throughout our lives, culminating in our death and resurrection, at which point one can even say that we are created” (The Wheel, 2008, “From Adam to Christ”).
Scott Cairns writes about the annunciation and nativity in a poem that is bookended by these images of formation and birth:
Deep within the clay, and O my people
very deep within the wholly earthen
compound of our kind arrives of one clear,
star-illumined evening a spark igniting
once again the ember of our lately
banked noetic fire. She burns but she
is not consumed. The dew falls gently,
suffusing the pure fleece. Her human flesh
adorns its Lord, and lo, the wall comes down.
And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become
the kindled kindred of a King whose birth
thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.
This poem (composed for Gordon College students during a stay in Orvieto, Italy) opens with the work of God upon our collective clay and ends with the truth that, as Mary gives birth to Christ, she gives new birth to us all.
This world and Mary are both expectant, and we all wait to be born again in a birth that now can only come through death. “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot contemplates how “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This is why the traditional nativity icons always depict the baby and his mother deep within a cave. It is a cave like that in which Christ’s dead body must be laid after his crucifixion. For the same reason, his swaddling clothes as a baby are the same in all the old icons as those bands that will wrap his body for burial. Christ, joins us in the womb of his mother and in the belly of the earth, both in his birth and in his death. God is with all who are just “earth that suffers” so that we, and the whole cosmos with us, can be remade and born again.