This week two different co-workers announced to our office that they are pregnant. I have never had the experience of expecting to be a parent. I imagine that it is a mixture of joy, anticipation, anxiety, and doubt. We sense a deep responsibility as humans for our infants. We know their survival, well-being, health, security, growth, and future maturity depends on us. At those early stages parents awake at any hint that their baby is in danger. They become accustom to the language of a baby signifying peace or distress.

In the modern, industrialized world the moment of birth is not associated with death as it is for many in the underdeveloped world or peoples of by-gone eras. Infant mortality has been a common misfortune for many. Likewise, there have been many women who have died in the process of trying to bring life into this world. It is a scary reminder that we humans are in a continual cycle of “passing the baton” from one generation to another. That people are born at all is a reminder of temporarily to those of us who are alive. We do not come into existence to roam this planet for ever. We come, we see, we may bring others into this world, and then we leave them for the great unknown.

As we ponder birth through the lens of death we are faced with the melancholy thought that in a very real sense your first breath is the beginning of your last series of breaths on this planet. Some live a few moments and others decades, but we start the race to finish it. We are not born to live forever, at least not forever in this state of being.

If death has the final word then birth is somewhat depressing. We gain a sense of self-reflection and personal awareness that seems foreign to the animal kingdom. We fall in love for more reasons that reproduction. We find value and purpose in our vocations. We establish relationships. We create. We discover. We find meaning in the cosmos. Then we die.

The season of Lent reminds us of this horrid fact. It screams “to dust you will return.” What is amazing about the final days of the season is that they bring us to Easter. Easter is the time when we entertain the possibility that death does not have the final word. If Jesus Christ has risen then at least one person in history faced death and emerged alive, more alive than before he died.

If resurrection is true then birth makes sense. We enter into this world not to die, but to prepare to live again. Our short time on stage is given meaning in the context of God’s huge, cosmic drama. Yes, for some, birth leads to a life engulfed in death, but that is no condemnation of birth itself. Instead, every birth signifies potential of life everlasting in the age to come. Every human is a potential son and daughter of God. Each one of us is given some sort of opportunity to experience the gift of existence, a gift that must be given for anyone to know God.

As these two co-workers bring children into the world they offer them the first necessary requirement for knowing God: life.

Once I was talking to a depressed young woman who was saying she wished she had never been born. I understand the sentiment. Jesus said the same of Judas, but what makes sense rhetorically lacks the same punch philosophically. Is there any sense in which we can say non-existence is better than existence? Can we speak of non-existence in any meaningful way? I don’t know that we can, at least when it comes to humanity. Our sense of existence is superior to non-existence by default because it has some value. We cannot say something that doesn’t exist has any value. Our lives may end in utter ruin, but that is not the fault of our birth and it is not our existence we should blame. Our existence gave us our only shot at potential and without potential there is no reason to speak of good and evil, value and loss.

Birth and death are the bookends of each person’s story. You can’t escape it. If you are here you were born. If you were born you are going to die. This is the framework of your narrative. We who are living cannot ask, “What if I wasn’t born.” We can ask one question: “What does everything between birth and death mean and what is my role in it?”


See also:

Lent in the Shadow of Death