The cross: birthing the community of disciples
In 2002, I gave a presentation on Mary in the Gospels. During the discussion, one person remarked that she had heard that the blood and water coming from the side of Jesus on the cross in John 19:34 was a birthing image – the amniotic fluid and blood involved in human birthing. Since I was unaware of this interpretation, I began researching and found it referred to here and there in modern scholars’ writings and that early church writers, such as St. Ambrose, had written on this. A full presentation is now found in a 2011 writing of Sister Barbara Reid, OP.
What is satisfying about her work is that she traces the birthing imagery throughout John’s gospel. She also points out the use of birthing imagery in relation to God’s efforts to call forth a renewed Israel: “For a long time I have kept silent; I have said nothing, holding myself back. Now I cry out like a woman in labor, gasping and panting” (Isaiah 42:14).
For John’s gospel, this brief reflection only refers to four passages. From the prologue, 1:3, describing the pre-existent Word of God, Jesus, one reads: “All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be.” Sister Barbara notes that the Greek verb translated as “came to be” also means “came into being through birth.”
The story of Nicodemus questioning Jesus at night (3:1-15) contains Jesus’ words: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” Nicodemus replied: “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” Jesus answered: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The Greek word, anothen, can be translated as “again” or “from above.” Clearly Nicodemus thinks “again” while Jesus intends “from above.” “From above” is reinforced by the conclusion to the story with Jesus’ comment that “the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life,” a reference to the cross (see also 12: 32-33).
In his farewell speech to the disciples during the Last Supper, Jesus describes their fear for his coming passion thus: “When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world, so you also are now in anguish” (16:21).
At Jesus’ crucifixion, Chapter 19, John notes the presence of Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. Jesus said to his mother: “‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then
he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her unto his own.” After Jesus said “‘It is finished,’ he bowed his head and handed over the spirit.” There follows the piercing of Jesus side by a soldier, “and immediately blood and water flowed out” (34). Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple, standing there, represent the new community brought forth by Jesus, comprised of blood family and faith family, born of water and the Spirit. Nicodemus soon appears to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus (39).
Much can be said of the birthing image used of Jesus on the cross, not the least being that the unique experience of a woman giving birth is used in the Bible of God and Jesus. Can we not say that women image God, image Jesus?