I'm going to take a wild guess and say that whomever wrote the famed Christmas carol "Silent Night" had never darkened the door of their local hospital's labor-and-delivery unit.
Can I get a witness?
I remember the first time I spent a good amount of my day in the L&D section of the women's center (apart from my own deliveries, which were actually magical and fairly quiet due to the brilliance of my best friend, Epi Dural). My cousin, who is also my bestie, went into labor with her second child. We were pregnant together three times; the first time I delivered eight weeks before her. The second time she went into labor I still had three months left to go, so I got my pregnant self stuffed into some maternity mom-jeans and made my way to the hospital.
For the record, very pregnant women hanging out for extended periods of time with other women who are in labor is not a good idea. It's kind of like the whole deal with women's cycles lining up with each other's when they hang out often; I'm pretty sure I had a sympathy contraction just walking into the hospital.
As Jimmy Fallon would say, "EW."
Anyway, visit her I did, and we sat for a long time together in the quiet of the delivery room enjoying the break from motherhood (ironic, right?) and reading trash mags and talking. And I was drinking Starbucks coffee, because who doesn't need a good cup'a while waiting on someone to give birth. I sat there drinking it right in front of her, filling the room with the delicious aroma of coffee, all while she could only have ice chips because she had already been given her epidural. In hindsight I see how incredibly insensitive that was. Insensitive but delicious.
As we were talking, the doctor came in and checked her. If you don't know what it means to be "checked" while in labor, ask your mom. He said that, unfortunately, things were moving somewhat slow and that he'd come back in a few hours to check again. My cousin was bummed, but also realized that she was offered a few precious more hours before she was responsible for another human's well-being, so she relaxed and settled in for what she thought was going to be a long wait.
Ten minutes later, literally out of nowhere, she said, "OW." Not "ow" like "oh, geez, that's uncomfortable" but "OW" like "someone just stabbed me in my hoo-hoo with an ice pick." I looked at her and asked if she was ok. She settled back in and said she was, but I could see that she was worried. A minute later the "OW" came again, this time a little louder, and she looked like a deer in the headlights.
"Something's changed," she said, panicking. "Someone get the doctor."
Her husband ran to find the doc while I watched her, puzzled. I was confused. She had an epidural, right? So why the pain?
The doctor came back in and asked for me to leave the room. I stepped out into the hallway, assuming he would check her and then I'd go back in.
It was about at this point that the screaming started. The only mental picture I have that represents what the screaming sounded like is this:
This picture is from one of my favorite scenes in the movie "Knocked Up," that I haven't watched, of course, because it's inappropriate (wink, wink).
The screams I heard pouring out of my cousin's delivery room came on quick and loud. Like, super-loud. They echoed down the corridors and bounced off the walls. They carried the upsetting news to every woman in the area that, alas, sometimes epidurals do NOT work as planned, and that natural childbirth is, indeed, horrifically painful.
My cousin's husband stuck his head out and said, "uh, change of plans...she's ten centimeters and she's pushing...AND her epidural stopped working." Then he ducked back inside. I stood there paralyzed in fear, knowing that my own labor experience was looming ahead of me and shaken by the idea that epidurals don't always work properly. I started sweating. I started contracting. I got lightheaded.
A nurse walked by and asked if I was there to deliver my baby and if I was ok. Um, NO, I was only six months pregnant, thank you very much, even if I did look like I could download a baby at any second, and NO, I was definitely NOT ok.
She could see that I was shaken and she could, obviously, hear my cousin's screams (along with the rest of North Atlanta), so she helped walk me to the waiting room and got me a cup of ice water.
Since that day I have heard many a scream coming from the Women's Center hallways. Each one sounds like the first one, and each one represents new life being brought into the world, one painful birth at a time.
It's because of these experiences that I laugh when I hear the song "Silent Night" sung at Christmastime. It's like we have forgotten somehow that Mary was a real person who was really, actually pregnant with a God-human child (Jesus) and who had to suffer through childbirth. Childbirth, I might add, that was unassisted and unmedicated by any professional. It was painful. It was messy. It took place in a CAVE, probably on a bed of hay and while she was surrounded by manure.
Yet, I think, when we picture the birth of Christ we most often picture this:
It's a stable, yes. But would you look at that ambience?! Perfectly placed candles giving the cave a holy glow. Perfectly behaved animals resting comfortably around the manger. A manger that is, by the way, dressed in fine linens, because we all know that poor, Jewish, teenage parents have fine linens they set aside in case the need arises to line a manger with them. Jesus is all clean and shining radiantly, obviously having had excellent post-birth care and having been bathed. He, of course, is not crying as the typical newborn might. And Mary! Boy, am I impressed with Mary. She just delivered a baby in a stable and she is already looking rested and cleaned up, back in her street clothes and keeping watch over her baby as he sleeps. She doesn't need sleep, obviously, because the whole fabulous experience didn't completely exhaust her.
I think we all need to insert a record screeching right now. A drastic and abrupt pause is necessary.
You see, when we "clean up" the story of Christ's birth (like in the picture above), we take the humanness right out of God in flesh, Jesus. Jesus was fully God, to be sure, but He was also man. Fully man. His mother was flesh and bones. He was delivered from her very pregnant womb. This isn't lore...it actually happened. And it was probably very messy.
Imagine with me a young teenage mother who just delivered her first child, unmedicated and virtually unassisted. She is with her new husband who didn't physically father her child. She is away from her own mother. She's surrounded by livestock and terrible smells. Her hormones are plummeting and she is exhausted. If she's anything like most first-time moms I know, she is an emotional basket case, sleep-deprived, and is probably already experiencing the baby blues, if not full-blown postpartum depression.
Joseph is a young man who has been handed the world's most important job, the weight of which we can never understand. He is to father the King of Kings. He's also concerned about his wife, because she's not herself and she's crying all the time. He is nervous to care for Jesus because he's never changed a diaper or maybe even held a baby.
And Jesus. Jesus is crying. He's hungry, because little tiny humans get hungry often. He's afraid because he's been whisked away from the warm, enveloping home he's been living in for the past nine months. He's sleepy, but he's also restless because he can't control his limbs, and he keeps working his way out of the swaddle.
Just because Jesus is God's son, and just because this account is in the Bible, doesn't mean it didn't happen in a real way, the same way it would happen to you or to me.
When we take away the realness of the story, we remove the part that we can most relate to.
The part where God came here to relate to us as a fully human man, getting down and dirty in our world, all for the sake of redeeming our souls. This is the part we must grasp if we are to fully understand the work Christ did on the cross, yet still we paint the picture of Him as this quiet, never-crying, always-happy Infant Baby King.
Silent night? I don't think so.
All is calm? Likely not.
All is bright? It was dark, and they were probably in a cave, so that's a negative.
Sleep in heavenly peace? I'm sorry, but everyone knows that sleep and a newborn baby rarely coexist.
My goal here isn't to slam your favorite Christmas song. Not by any means. I do want, though, to take a moment to focus on the realness of Christ's birth, because it is in that realness where connection with Him happens. He is relatable. He is tangible. He walked MORE than a mile in our shoes. In fact, He walked all the way to Calvary, where he was crucified, bled, and died for the sins of all mankind. Then he conquered death once and for all and is waiting for you and me in Glory.
"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned...and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end." Isaiah 9
Let's celebrate the realness of Christ and his birth this Christmas season. I need it. You probably need it too.
And if you happen to go visit a friend who's in labor at the hospital anytime soon, might I suggest you bring earplugs and a valium?