As my eldest child recently celebrated her tenth birthday, I was struck by how vivid the memory of my labor for her is, though a decade now has passed. I suspect I’m not alone in this phenomenon. I imagine that the mothers among you who have children twenty, thirty, and forty years old retain keen memories of those hours…or days. The memory of the labor and birth of each of your children, though perhaps inexpressible in words, is as fresh as if they were the events of yesterday.
It’s the unique work of mothers, or so we like to think–this agony bringing forth new life–and yet, St. Paul uses the imagery of labor pains when he describes himself to the Galatians: My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Gal 4:19).
A friend of mine quips that she regularly reminds her children of this verse. Indeed, the labor of motherhood hardly ends at childbirth. For it’s not merely life we want to give our children, but Life Abundant, and that must come by another labor, another birth. I wonder, then, if the agony of our physical labors, and our keen memories of each, are less a punishment for original sin, but rather–as God works all things for good–a gift, an instruction, a training ground in which we learn how to pray for our children and for one another. Both men and women are to understand the pains of childbirth as analogous to the work and fortitude of Christian discipleship. The goal of our labor is bringing forth not our own child, but Christ in others.
Two things in particular strike me about Paul’s use of his labor-pain metaphor: both the intensity of his pain and the surety of his faith. Perhaps one of the reasons I sometimes avoid even beginning prayer or fasting, or avoid initiating a conversation about faith with others, is my fear that it could be painful. It could be difficult work wherein I see no measurable progress. Perhaps you can relate? Paul can, too. A paragraph earlier he fears that his work with the Galatians may have been wasted (4:11). But he soon changes his tone, and his confident faith here can serve as a remedy for our fears. He doesn’t say: “my dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth in the hope that perhaps Christ may be formed in you.” No, he is in pain until Christ is formed in you. He has no doubt that Jesus will act or that his own intercession will be effective.
My maternal labors were in some way bearable because I could so clearly envision the birth which followed. Can I face prayer with that same fortitude, then, and proclaim confidently over those in my life who are young or young in faith, that Christ will be formed in them? Let us ask St. Paul for a share in his confident laboring.