The Cathedral of St Mary and All Saints, in Harare, Zimbabwe, is an impressive building right in the centre of a busy, capital city. When I was deacon and priest there it was in days when people still went to church in large numbers, the Church was taken seriously and by and large admired.
Many, many people popped in to the cathedral during the day for all sorts of reasons, some good, some bad. Office workers, tourists, thieves, down and outsand not a few cranks, weirdos and nutters.
One such was a grotesquely fat young man with a pasty complexion, high-pitched voice and thick rimmed spectacles. He was obviously confused as to his sexuality, and he appeared to have a yen more for the outward show, fripperies and ceremonies of Christianity, than for its moral content and radical challenge to love sacrificially. It was sanctuary bells and smells, holy water stoups, thuribles, rosaries, crucifixes, trinkets, gewgaws and tat that turned him on, more than God, or so it seemed.
One day he was discovered lying writhing on a city pavement, dressed as a woman and screaming that he was pregnant. He was full-bellied and falsetto enough to be taken seriously, and so in spite of a stubbled chin he was whisked off to the local maternity home.
I wish I had been there when all was revealed to midwife and nurses.
Be that as it may, however, there is no need to be too dismissive of the poor and confused fellow. For although you don’t often hear sentiments like this, we males do miss out on something enviably wonderful in being denied pregnancy and motherhood by biology rather than choice.
Given all the sacrifice, discomfort and pain involved in pregnancy, we are more usually considered fortunate to be so denied. But in fact, are we? Perhaps that strange young man was not as bonkers as I have assumed, he may well have articulated a subliminal male yearning, though one too thoroughly repressed in most of us ever to be admitted to.
The loveliest of little vignettes
These reminiscences and thoughts were triggered by the Gospel account of two pregnant women cousins rejoicing in their good fortune, or rather in God’s good blessing, their pregnancies. It is not only the two women who rejoice, however, Elizabeth’s infant she tells us in the account, also rejoices by leaping in the womb at Mary’s good news.
This little Gospel snapshot is an account of what we call “the Visitation”. It tells of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth with her good news, and it is one of the loveliest little vignettes in Scripture. Joy, happiness and blessings so bubble out of Mary, that she rushes off for mile after dangerous mile to share her news and her joy. She does this so infectiously that her joyous good news animates Elizabeth, adding to her joy in her own pregnancy. What is more, her joy internalises itself, communicating with her own little three month old embryo who leaps in her womb with the shared joy as well.
And then, as if that is not enough, all this joy has externalised itself down through the ages, communicating itself to Christians, who have turned the event into a major feast day in our calendar, have painted wonderful pictures of it over and over again, and because in scripture it is the inspiration for and prelude to one of the greatest of all biblical songs, the “Magnificat”, it has been set to joyful music by thousands and thousands of musicians down through the centuries, the best loved version of them all to me, being Johan Sebastian’s great setting in D.
One is not one but two
The miracle of pregnancy, it seems to me, and I speak as a mere male, and so do so hesitantly, is that once pregnant, all of a sudden a woman is not entirely or completely herself.
There is an “other” that is a part of her, sharing her blood, her heartbeat, her oxygen, her very life, and yet other, not her, someone else. She can no longer speak of herself as solely herself, “I am I - am I, am I”, because there is another that is her too, “We are we - are we, are we”. It is, sweet paradox, a natural miracle. One is not one, but two.
This might even help explain why women tend to be more Christian than men, because to experience an other being as somehow a part of one’s own being, is a natural metaphor for God himself as somehow being an intimate part of oneself. Indeed it is also a natural metaphor for God himself as somehow being an intimate part of one’s world.
What is more, this metaphor is all involved and tangled up with love, because ideally the other within a mother has been conceived in love, and the other within the mother is loved as self, certainly, but also as somehow husband as well as other in its own right.
It is all so amazing you can hardly get your mind round it. This paradox, this natural miracle, is so wonderful in its own sheer naturalness, that to stop and baulk, gasp or goggle at an apparently unnatural virgin birth, is to blind oneself to something natural but far, far greater.
The natural miracle
Indeed the virgin birth could well be necessary not least as an attempt to tie down, pin down, conceptualise, get your head round the paradoxical, mind-blowing reality that is the greater natural miracle!
Pregnancy: suddenly a woman is not entirely or completely herself. There is another that is a part of her, sharing her blood, her heartbeat, her oxygen, her very life, and yet other, not her, someone else. She can no longer speak of herself as solely herself, not “I am I - am I, am I”, for there is another that is her too, “We are we - are we, are we”. It is, sweet paradox, a natural miracle. One is not one but two.
Mary’s pregnancy: suddenly a woman is not entirely or completely herself. There is an Other (with a capital O) that is a part of her, sharing her blood, her heartbeat, her oxygen, her very life, and yet Other, not her, God.... She can no longer speak of herself as solely herself. Since which time, we too can no longer speak of our self as solely our self, because God, as with Mary, is also, thanks to her, a part of us.
How wonderful it all is
My soul doth magnify the Lord:
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.