I have a friend who is preparing for the birth of her first child. The other day, she mentioned to me the vexing problems of stretch marks, sagging breasts, and dark-circled eyes--all of which "come with the territory" of pregnancy, birth, and infant caregiving. As I pondered this concern about the physical marks of childbearing--which I share and find myself lamenting on a regular basis--I arrived at some theological reflections that I would like to share.
Throughout human history, childbearing has been both a momentous and hazardous task for women. Our modern medical advances in the West cloud the reality that when women give birth, they are taking their own lives and the life of their child into their hands. They and they alone, even with the most attentive, technologically advanced care, are able to bring the fruit of their womb into the world. And this responsibility is a weighty and sometimes terrifying one.
There is a reason that so many women, for so long, perished in childbirth. And even now, in the non-Western world, childbearing remains a very dangerous endeavor. (Hence, the practice of midwifery was developed, where women partner with women to aid them in making the journey through labor, delivery, and into a new life.) No matter their religion, socio-economic status, or ethnicity, women who labor to bring new life into the world stand at the edge of what their bodies can endure and push just a little bit further--all so that another can live. Facing full-on the limits of their creaturely existence, women forge ahead and discover just how mighty frail creatures of dust can be.
As a result of their labors, which are varied and different for every woman, mothers bear in their bodies the marks of their creative process. Skin is stretched. Flesh is torn. Blood is shed. And even after time and care have brought healing to the body, the marks remain.
What shall we make of these scars? Most women, not to mention men, grimace at the fleshly realities of childbirth. The process is an assault on the "ideal"--gritty, messy, earthly, and imperfect. When the ideal woman is conceived as a Caucasian 21 year-old, with an aerobically sculpted body and no sign of "weakness" or strain, then the woman giving birth is a frightening, ugly prospect. And, in the same way, the scars that remain after the event are an unfortunate, even gross, alteration to the human body that must be hidden or removed, if possible.
But, what do we as Christians have to say about these things? Is there a Christian theology of stretch marks (so to speak)?
The God-man Jesus Christ labored on our behalf seeking after the redemption of the world. He took into his own body the sin, evil, and suffering of the world and triumphed over it through the cross. Even as the resurrected God-man, however, Jesus bears in his body the scars of his laborious sacrifice on our behalf. Whatever way one chooses to conceive of the resurrected body, Jesus was able to show the very real nail scars to the disciples and Thomas could place his fingers within the marks. The place where a sword pierced through flesh, muscle, and bone had closed over and healed, but the sign of the assault remained.
Let us observe, however, that for Jesus, these marks are not embarrassing signs of imperfection, something unsightly to be covered up with make-up or removed with plastic surgery. Instead, they are a beautiful indicator of Jesus' true humanity and a profound testimony of God's nature to the world. Because of Jesus' scars, we know that it not against the nature of our God to become human flesh (thereby affirming human frailty as good and blessed). And, it is not against the nature of our God to suffer within a bodily existence and experience death for the life of creation. In Jesus, God was bringing forth a new creation, with torn flesh, shed blood, and great travail.
Women who embark on the journey of creating, bearing, and bringing forth life do so in a sign picture of the work of Christ. Christ presents his scars to the disciples as proof of his finished work, bodily triumph over sin and death, and the new life available in him. So also women present their scars to the world as proof of their completed trial, bodily triumph, and production of new life.
Sadly, not all women who labor bring forth living children as the fruit of their work. This profound tragedy is something I cannot imagine having to endure. But, I would think that even these emotional wounds are not rebuffed by the women who bear them, but cradled gently as the weak and sore places in their hearts, where the child they lost should be. These marks cannot be extricated from their souls anymore than the physical marks can from their bodies. And both can be viewed as a experiential type of the redemptive scars of Jesus Christ.
In this theological sketch, I am not suggesting that childbirth is a redemptive act on par with the work of Christ on the cross. Of course not. But, I am saying that the scars of childbirth--the signs of travail and suffering for the purpose of new life--are to be presented to the world as a sign of womanly, bodily victory. Just as Jesus viewed his own marks as significant, so also women should embrace and celebrate the marks left upon their bodies by the dangerous, glorious work of childbirth.