Posted on December 27, 2007 in Washington Watch

We need stories; stories we can live by, that teach us about ourselves. Our stories should speak to the realities of our everyday lives, the fear and insecurity that accompany us as we face birth, death, and all that lies in between.

I was thinking of this when I first heard Country and Western singer Randy Travis’ new recording, “Labor of Love.” It is a different kind of Christmas song, one that provides an antidote to the antiseptic Christmas stories we’ve come to tell ourselves.

As always, Travis’ voice is rich and deep, and the melody of “Labor of Love” is haunting; but it is the song’s stark and real lyrics, and the images they evoke, that most struck me.

“Labor of Love” begins:

“It was not a silent night, there was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry in the alleyway that night on the streets of David’s town
And the stable was not clean and the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace with tears upon her face had no mother’s hand to hold.”

And the song ends:

“It was a labor of pain, it was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark with every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love
For little Mary full of grace, with tears on her face
It was a labor of love.”

This is no “Silent Night” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This is a song about a real Mary, alone, cold and in pain, giving birth with all the fear that precedes the joy of that moment.

On first hearing “Labor of Love,” I was reminded of one of my favorite verses of the Qur’an. It’s in Surat Maryam (19:22-23), which tells of Mary about to give birth:

”...and she retired with him to a remote place. And the pains of her childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree: She cried (in her anguish): ‘Ah! Would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight.’” [At this point a voice (most probably, the angel) speaks to Mary of what God provides to give comfort and sustenance.]

Surat Maryam tells of Mary, in pain and frightened, but seeking and receiving solace. This is a Mary with whom mothers can relate, and from whom we can learn. We live by stories such as these, and seek to define out lives in terms of them. But, when our stories are about abstractions, removed from our experiences, the lessons fall flat.

We’re in that season, again, where the debate about “keeping Christ in Christmas” has become more the political weapon of choice than an appeal to religiosity. This debate, as currently framed, misses the point. If the Christ we keep in Christmas is so distant and unapproachable, and his mother so unreal, what useful lessons can we be taught? How do you relate to “Silent Night?” The scene is too pristine, the characters so hollowed out of human content as to become caricatured clichés.

When I think of the lessons of birth, I think of the fear of my mother who, at 39 thought she’d never bear a child, giving birth to me, and the joy that followed; or my wife who, after a frightening miscarriage, gave birth to our first at a young 23, and the relief and pride of holding our son in her arms; or my daughters and daughter-in-law, who gave birth as we waited, knowing of their fear but unable to share their pain; or the mothers in Gaza, or in the camps of Darfur, or in the ravaged neighborhoods of Baghdad—all of them alone, in their pain and fear, but all, nevertheless, expectant of new life. And all of them seeking comfort, the comfort that can come from real stories describing life as it is.

That is why Surat Maryam has always been so meaningful, and that is why I welcome “Labor of Love”—a different kind of Christmas song.

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