"The Sacrament of Birth"
SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2010)
The Savior taught that “all things are created and made to bear record of [Him]."  The thread of creation metaphors woven throughout the scriptures clarifies that it is not just the creations themselves that testify of a Supreme Creator. Indeed, within the very process of creation, within the steps leading up to the end product of a creation, we see the mark of the Divine. The physical union of male and female, conception, pregnancy, and birth are all sacred acts with deep symbolism which turn our thoughts toward our Creator. They provide potent imagery to teach us of eternity. It is not surprising, given that each of these four sacraments takes place within a female’s body, that Jesus Christ often used maternal metaphors to describe His mission and purpose. Additionally, prophets repeatedly reference the process of creating human life to explain the importance of the priesthood ordinances essential to our eternal salvation. Simply put, without birth there could be no mortality; it is our essential first step in the Great Plan of Happiness.  As ordained requirements of God, conception, pregnancy, and birth stand alongside all of the holy ordinances of the priesthood as equally critical elements within the course toward exaltation. Indeed they are sacraments.
In the relatively recent affluence of our industrialized society it is easy to overlook the risk women face as they pass through childbirth. According to UNICEF’s 2008 Report Card on Maternal Mortality, an estimated half million women die each year as a result of pregnancy and childbirth.  There is hope that our efforts to reverse this trend are beginning to pay off. For the first time in decades, researchers have noted a significant drop in world-wide maternal mortality rates.  We still have a long way to go, considering that in the bleakest of circumstances on our globe women can still expect a one-in-seven chance of losing their life in the process of giving life.  The majority of these deaths occur in underdeveloped nations, but disturbingly, maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the United States are alarmingly high compared to other industrialized nations.  Our maternal health care has improved since the days when more American women died in childbirth than men died in war , yet unlike the global trend, the United State’s maternal mortality rate has been rising sharply in recent years.  Some of our most reliable data show that our maternal mortality rate has doubled since the 1980’s.  The majority of these deaths are preventable. Given the sacred nature of maternity, these numbers represent not only a secular tragedy but also represent a religious betrayal. The scriptures plainly state that in order to avoid condemnation and to remain guiltless before God a people must care for those who are afflicted spiritually and temporally.  If a measure of righteousness is determined by a people’s degree of physical nurturing and protection, then certainly God cares about our maternal health care outcomes. For believing citizens, the lowering of our egregious maternal mortality rates must be a priority. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that the improvement of maternal health care is of sacred eternal import.
A woman’s body is the conduit through which all human life must pass. While our world is packed with an innumerable diversity of species and possibilities, God clearly explains that some aspects of life must follow one precisely defined path. He states, “Straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to eternal life."  At the beginning of that life journey the narrow passageway is into and out of a woman’s womb. Microscopic sperm traverse the extremely narrow route from the testes through the epididymis, the vas deferens, the urethra, and eventually through the female’s vagina, cervix and uterus, and finally through a fallopian tube. The mature ovum exits the ovaries and traverses the fallopian tubes, where it is most likely to be fertilized. Then the resulting zygote, or fertilized egg, travels on to implant into the uterus. From there the exit into mortality is only through the narrow vaginal passage, or through the small incision cut in a surgical birth. At its widest, that path has a circumference of an infant’s head, at its narrowest that path is a matter of millimeters. This single way into mortality, in addition to the passage out of it, is not trivial in God’s eyes. In fact, in the words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “God's greatest concerns regarding mortality are how one gets into this world and how one gets out of it."  The severity of this statement is underscored by the doctrine that sexual sin and murder are the two most grievous sins one can commit.  The physical act leading to the creation of life is as serious as the spiritual purpose of life. In the “Proclamation to the World” the First Presidency states unequivocally, “We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed."  God has designed a very narrow and specific path into mortality and likewise a very narrow and specific path into immortality. Mortality is entered only through a mother (of course with the aid of a father) and immortality is entered only through Jesus Christ (again a Father enabled this process). Christ repeated proclaimed that it is only through him that we can live eternally with God.”  At another occurrence he explained, “I am the door of sheep.”  In this sense, the clearest metaphor for Jesus Christ’s unique role as our savior is that of a mother. A woman’s body is the gateway to mortality and the entrance to the Great Plan of Happiness. There is no other way.
The union of male and female invokes the divine. When God placed the first man and woman on the Earth, He commanded them to ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth’.  This work of building families and replenishing the world around us mirrors God’s great work and glory of ‘bring[ing] to pass the immortality and eternal life’ of His children.  The human race must be defined as both male and female. Indeed, modern revelation expressly states that in order to go where God is we must go as a couple.  Furthermore, to be like God is, we need to be a couple. In an inspired poem, Eliza R. Snow wrote:
In the heav’ns are parents single?
Prophets have affirmed to us that deity is not single. We are offspring of the “universal Father and Mother” and males and females were created in their image.  The unifying of male and female is God-like. Elder Holland eloquently and powerfully expresses the depth of this symbolic union:
This holy union of female with male is the catalyst for another holy union: that of the spirit with the body. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that the body is not of lesser value than the spirit, but that together the spirit and the body constitute the human soul."  Without this union we “cannot receive a fullness of joy."  Nephi used the same word, joy, to describe our very purpose on earth: “men are that they might have joy."  As a result of conception, we become “living souls,” capable of joy. The book of Abraham describes this original creation as: ‘the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, the man’s spirit), and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."  However this initial union of body and spirit took place with the first humans, at least in the case for subsequent offspring, “living souls” are created in the womb of a mother. Science has not yet detected the function of parents’ spirits in the conception of offspring, but we do certainly know the importance of their bodies in this process. A mother’s body is the portal through which the coalescence of body with spirit is established. Our mothers’ creation, however, has a temporary union. It is through the Savior’s atonement that we will all one day be resurrected and this union will be made permanent. Then, through the womb of Christ our earthly “element” and our spirit will become “inseparably connected,” and we will “receive a fullness of joy." 
During this incubation period within our mothers’ womb, our bodies are constructed. Because the Lord considers our bodies to be temples , we can consider our mothers to be the primary temple constructers. Christ also spoke of Himself as a temple builder. To the sign-seeking Jews he stated, “[d]estroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.  The temple He was speaking of was His own body.  All human bodies, including Christ’s own body, are first constructed by a mother and are secondly constructed by Christ at the time of the resurrection.  Many parallels can be drawn between this temple work performed by our mother and our Savior.
In order for pregnancy to take hold, an entirely unique organ, the placenta, must be created to link the mother and her offspring. In its original Latin, placenta literally means cake.  This cake, or bread-like organ serves to transmit essential nutrients from the mother to nourish the developing fetus, and in return conducts life-harming wastes produced by the fetus to be processed by the mother’s body. The ‘Bread of Life’ performs a similar function in our lives as He nourishes us spiritually and bears the responsibility of cleansing us.  Christ said of himself, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. 
Christ, using His own flesh as a means to nourish, us leads to another analogy. The umbilical cord, or funiculus umbilicalis, is a tough, sinewy cord containing three blood vessels, connecting the developing fetus to the placenta. Through this literal life-line the fetus receives essential oxygen and nourishment. Ezekiel stated, “Thy mother is like a vine in the blood.”  Christ called himself ‘the true vine’ , capable of giving ‘strength and nourishment’ to His fold.  Christ expounds on this comparison: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing."  The Family: A Proclamation to the World, states that “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” The original evidence of this divine nurturing received from our mothers is written on all human flesh right at the core: the navel. This mark that a mother leaves on all of her children is understood through the temple to also be a mark of the holy priesthood. Both our mothers and Christ join in this mission as they feed us by their own flesh and blood, and nourish us with a life-giving vine.
In addition to a life-giving vine, Christ describes himself as a: shepherd, bread, water, light, a plant, and life itself.  All of these metaphors express Him as a protector or producer of life. The good shepherd risks his life for the flock; the living bread sustains life; the living water secures life everlasting; the light of the sun fuels all life on the planet; and a plant consumes light and produces seed. To help us understand how we are to relate to Him, Christ steps beyond the abstraction of these non-human examples and expresses himself with the most compelling life-giving imagery a mortal can encounter: birth. In a way that perhaps only a mother comprehends, He promises us, “I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you."  To understand the extent of pregnancy analogies in the scriptures, it is important to note that in scriptural terms many regions of the body are used to reference the location where offspring reside. The terms bowels is linked to reproduction, fertility, and offspring.  For example, in Isaiah we read, “Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name."  Additionally, both the belly and the womb are spoken of to help us understand our intimate relationship with the Savior. He has said, “Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly…."  The term loins, which constitute the waist and lower torso, are symbolic of offspring, reproduction, and omnipresence but this term is used only for men.  It is because loins are reserved for men that such scriptures become all the more astounding. One might question why male deities are talking about giving birth, when we believe that there are female deities? Are the birth references really just lovely analogies to help us mortals understand how to relate to them? Or are these real births? Are, perhaps, Heavenly Father and Jesus participating in the birthing process to the same degree that our earthly fathers participated in our births? If this is the case, where are the female deity and what are their roles in creation? What is woman’s eternal role concerning maternity and creation? Is God intentionally invisibilizing what female deities do, or is this another instance in which scriptures have been corrupted through time? Whether these passages imply metaphorical or actual births, the pregnancy references run deep. Christ asks of us to abide, or dwell in Him. In the New Testament we read, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me."  If we allow the Lord to carry us in His figurative womb, we will live, we will be one with Him and His will, and we will be enveloped in His love.
The indispensability of gaining a body is highlighted by the fact that all humans must develop one to live and must receive one again to live forever. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."  Additionally, he is never united in marriage or the sacrament of sex with a woman, and has no offspring of his body. Our flesh and bones are not only important for mortality, for in the story of the creation we learn that the human form is modeled after God’s form.  A verse in the Doctrine and Covenants expounds on this teaching by explaining that God “has a body of flesh and bone as tangible as man’s."  Undoubtedly, receiving a body is an essential step in our eternal progression. We must have one to become like our Heavenly Parents. Our mothers and our Savior shoulder this responsibility of carrying us in their wombs, enabling us to both have a body and live.
A famous Bible verse reads, “Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven."  Perhaps it should go without saying that being born the first time is also essential in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the Book of Moses, the Lord made this point very eloquently when he said, “…inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory."  Childbirth and the water, blood, and spirit inherent in it are not just incredibly convenient examples to use in helping us understand baptism, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. The act of birth is a sacred passage in its own right. Speaking of procreation, Elder Holland explained that the ability to create new life endows humans with “the power and the chemistry and the eternally transmitted seeds of life to grant someone else her second estate, someone else his next level of development in the divine plan of salvation."  Consider the parallel roles of the main actors in our first and second births by comparing the following two scriptures. Concerning our first birth, John wrote, “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.  And concerning our second birth Isaiah wrote, “He shall see the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied; by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities."  The travail of our mothers and the travail of Christ have many parallels. Few acts on earth come closer to resembling Christ’s atonement than woman’s universal experience of bearing children. The magnitude of woman’s maternal role is underscored by the numerous times the Savior’s role can only be explained by referencing this great maternal act.
To describe our mothers’ Christ-like labor for our lives, we find terminology that ties right back to the metaphors reserved for a Great Creator and a Savior. ‘Dar la luz,’ the Spanish term meaning ‘to give birth’ is literally translated as to give light or to bring to light. Echoing this concept, the South American Kogi Tribe uses one word, munsá, to mean both dawn and vagina.  This giving of light may be both literal and figurative. A fetus’s experience in the womb is one of relative darkness. The strength and will of our mothers bring us from this world of shadow into light. Of the Savior Micah wrote, “he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.  Both these maternal and redeeming labors create life-long links. Christ lovingly reminds us how often He has gathered us “as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings” to nourish us.  With the imagery of a mother he comforts us: “can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee…I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me."  Throughout eternity the Savior’s body will remain marked by His great sacrifice for each of our lives. Throughout mortality, a mother’s body will likewise bear the markings of her sacrifice. These markings may include scars from incisions and tears, stretch marks spanning from thighs to abdomen to breasts, entirely transformed mammary gland tissue, and even internal biochemical changes. Studies reveal that women carry the cells of their children (even in the case of an abortion or miscarriage) within their bodies throughout their entire lives. Furthermore, these fetal cells may even perform important and healing functions within the mother’s body.  The life-giving blood Christ speaks of is also a trait women share with the Savior. Christ’s great atonement, which involved bleeding from every pore, was essential in order to open the gates of heaven to a world of mortal sinners. Usually a loss of blood means sickness or death. The only other case in which a significant loss of blood shows healthy signs of life is during the monthly flow of menstrual blood and during childbirth. Literally, without this shedding of blood, the doors to human life would be closed.
Speaking of Christ’s great atoning labor for us, the prophet Abinadi explained that we are His children, His seed, because of that atoning act: “And now I say unto you, who shall declare his generation? Behold, I say unto you, that when his soul has been made an offering for sin he shall see his seed."  Those who accept Christ will become His offspring. King Benjamin further explains our participation in this second birth process saying, “And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters."  Just as being born of Christ requires action on our part, so our first birth required steps on our behalf to initiate the process. Not only did we individually choose to come to earth, but when our bodies were sufficiently developed our physiology set in motion a cascade of events that sent our mothers into labor on our behalf.  It is the baby, not the mother’s body, that initiates labor. Many women who have had the unfortunate experience of birthing both stillborns and live healthy babies note how much effort is contributed by a living baby in the birthing process. Being born both the first and the second time requires great effort on our part, but of course the stars in these processes are our mother and our Savior. Jesus Christ described His labor on our behalf saying, “[this] suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men."  In the human experience, the most extreme bodily sacrifice for another’s life is childbirth. A renowned obstetrician commented that birth, “has the potential to transform the ways in which we think about ourselves. As one patient said to [her], ‘I felt powerful and in touch with something within me that I never knew was there. I took my place among the lineage of women as mothers."  This empowerment is not only a subjective experience. Neuroscientists have determined that hormones released in a woman’s body during pregnancy and nursing contribute directly to an increase in brain power. With a permanent and quantifiable increase in dendrites and glial cells a mother has a greater capacity to store long-term memory, develop increased motivation and empathy, increase multitasking and prioritizing skills, and decrease fear.  Just as the Savior’s atoning act increased his capacity to love us, so a mother’s sacrifice increases her capacity to fulfill her great role.
The role of a mother does not, obviously, end with birth. Nor do the maternal metaphors. Immediately following birth and for years afterward a mother’s body can continue to provide physical nourishment through breast milk. Even more importantly, she can support, teach, and lead her young with love. Isaiah said of the Savior, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young."  It is the very process of bearing and laboring that prepares a mother to also love and nourish her offspring after birth. The same hormone, oxytocin, that is present in the woman’s body to dilate the cervix and start uterine contractions also serves to fill the mother with love and helps her bond with her newborn.  The Savior’s labor on our behalf likewise filled Him with compassion for us. Alma explained, “he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities." 
Beyond even the basic needs of nourishment, warmth, protection, and love, birth has the power to both grant and perpetuate freedom. The Savior grants freedom from sin and bondage, as well as freedom of choice.  The apostle John wrote, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed."  Likewise our mothers’ act of giving birth is an essential means of granting and perpetuating liberty and sovereignty. The philosopher A. Don Sorensen explains, “The concept of [free beings] is that of persons as self-directed beings with a love for human life the point of whose existence includes living their lives well and perpetuating human life as an integral part of doing so . . . So the perpetuation of human life is an intrinsic part of the identity of human beings as free beings . . . The viability of the free life as a common way to live [depends upon] the continuation from one generation to another without decline."  Our first mother, Eve, opened the way for her children to experience that freedom when she ate of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Because of this courageous act, God granted unto woman the power to give birth to the force that would ultimately crush Satan’s head, even Jesus Christ.  In the book Women in Zion, Women in Eternity, the authors encourage us to ponder Eve’s role:
Think about what Eve immediately accomplished by being the first to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: her act provided the way into mortality through which all humankind could pass, and of course, she introduced into that world the knowledge of good and evil with its inherent power to realize good. Since it is the ‘light of Christ’ that enables people to ‘know good from evil’ and ‘to lay hold upon every good thing’ (Moroni 7:12-19), we may say that Eve introduced this attribute of light into the mortal world by partaking of the fruit. 
Indeed, it is consistent with the role of woman that she did so. As the mother of all living , Eve took this brave first step to allow God’s children access to ultimate and eternal freedom.  Gratefully, modern revelation clarifies for us the too often mistaken interpretations of the fall and Eve’s role in it.
Disdain Towards Birth
If motherhood and birth are so obviously saturated in sacredness, why is a mother’s work so often dismissed as common-place, tedious, and even dirty? Perhaps the answer is simply in the very commonness of it. It was the every-day familiarity people had with Jesus Christ that led many to dismiss him as simply the son of Joseph the carpenter. (Luke 4: 22-25) The book of John states, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not." (John 1:10-11) Likewise, that every person on earth is born of a mother may reduce its specialness. By stepping back and taking a wider view we begin the process of returning these most common acts to their rightful glory. The authors Sorenson and Cassler illuminate this wider view by detailing the perfect equality of women’s and men’s roles through eternity. Of the two-thirds of God’s children who chose earth life, all of these spirits were ushered into mortality by women, including the Savior himself. “In a sense [women] serve as the gatekeepers to our mortal world. (…) Presiding over those who passed through the veil, they clothed each traveler with a physical body and introduced them into mortality and agency through personal suffering and sacrifice."  The authors explain that in this role our mothers are ‘caretakers of the light’. Priesthood holding men preside over the second veil, equal to those at the first, and they likewise offer personal sacrifice in their roles as ‘caretakers of the word.'  Jesus Christ ultimately ‘fulfilled the promise of the sacrifices made by both types of caretakers’. He overcame death that results from birth, and he overcame sin that results from disobeying the word. Yet, because the work of a mother is consistently performed first, society’s focus often turns more heavily to the work of the men at the second veil. The authors explain,
Because of this fact, the full drama of the work of the caretakers of the light is muted. We do not see how some accepted the offering made by the caretakers of the light in their work as mothers and how some did not. Thus every individual on earth has accepted the offering of the caretakers of light, and thus the sacrifice of the caretakers of light seems common. Their very sacrifice in their work as mothers is concealed because of its perceived commonness. Pregnancy, labor, delivery, and breast-feeding are concealed as far as their full drama and their full glory are concerned. The sacrifice of blood and water—sometimes even the very sacrifice of life itself by the caretaker of light—is usually not seen by the family or the community, but rather by a birth professional—a doctor or midwife. The ministry of the caretakers of the light in their work as mothers, which includes nurturing bodies and spirits subsequent to birth, is likewise hidden by its very commonness. 
Under the light of true equality, one gender is not diminished when understanding of the other is increased. Indeed, ‘[v]isibility does impact how we carry out our roles as helpmeets to one another. When women are invisible or devalued, the role of helpmeet that men play is impoverished. Likewise, when women are visible and valued, men’s responsibilities as lovers of women become enlarged."  In extolling the role of woman and in paralleling that role with that of the Savior, the role of men is in no way depreciated.
What About the Childless?
All of this discussion concerning the sacredness of birth may raise questions about the value of women who are childless. If the sacrament of birth is so central to a woman’s role, then what of the women who have not yet or will not give birth? In her talk entitled ‘Are We Not All Mothers?’, Sheri L. Dew eloquently replies to this questions with a depth of understanding gleaned from both ancient and modern scripture:
While we tend to equate motherhood solely with maternity, in the Lord’s language, the word mother has layers of meaning. Of all the words they could have chosen to define her role and her essence, both God the Father and Adam called Eve ‘the mother of all living’—and they did so before she ever bore a child. Like Eve, our motherhood began before we were born. Just as worthy men were foreordained to hold the priesthood in mortality, righteous women were endowed premortally with the privilege of motherhood. Motherhood is more than bearing children, though it is certainly that. It is the essence of who we are as women. It defines our very identity, our divine stature and nature, and the unique traits our Father gave us. President Gordon B. Hinckley stated that ‘God planted within women something divine.’ That something is the gift and the gifts of motherhood. Elder Matthew Cowley taught that ‘men have to have something given to them [in mortality] to make them saviors of men, but not mothers, not women. [They] are born with an inherent right, an inherent authority, to be the saviors of human souls … and the regenerating force in the lives of God’s children.’ Motherhood is not what was left over after our Father blessed His sons with priesthood ordination. It was the most ennobling endowment He could give His daughters, a sacred trust that gave women an unparalleled role in helping His children keep their second estate. As President J. Reuben Clark Jr. declared, motherhood is ‘as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood itself.’ (…)About this Elder John A. Widtsoe was explicit: ‘Women who through no fault of their own cannot exercise the gift of motherhood directly, may do so vicariously.’ (…) Eve set the pattern. In addition to bearing children, she mothered all of mankind when she made the most courageous decision any woman has ever made and with Adam opened the way for us to progress. She set an example of womanhood for men to respect and women to follow, modeling the characteristics with which we as women have been endowed…. Like the Savior, ‘who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,’ Eve, for the joy of helping initiate the human family, endured the Fall. She loved us enough to help lead us. As daughters of our Heavenly Father, and as daughters of Eve, we are all mothers and we have always been mothers. And we each have the responsibility to love and help lead the rising generation. (…) I repeat: We are all mothers in Israel, and our calling is to love and help lead the rising generation through the dangerous streets of mortality. (…) No woman who understands the gospel would ever think that any other work is more important or would ever say, ‘I am just a mother,’ for mothers heal the souls of men. 
While many women have not or will not give birth, all women are endowed with a mother spirit. Additionally, every human has a mother. And, we all have women who have mothered us. To these women we owe our deepest respect and veneration.
In honoring the sacred work of our mothers, a less-thought-of mother’s story takes on new light. Our mother earth’s creation and role parallel that of our human mothers. The creation story told in the second chapter of Moses is something of a macrocosmic birth. As told by Moses, the Great Creator who conceives the world is Jesus Christ (verse 1). The divine process of creation He unfolds follows a pattern much like the process of our mother’s labor on our behalf. When the story began, “the earth was without form, and void” and darkness covered the deep (verse 2). In Abraham’s version of the creation, he called this stage “empty”(Abraham 4:2). Then God’s “Spirit moved upon the face of the water” (verse 2). Before human conception, a woman’s inner vessel is in a similar state; the reproductive anatomy is prepared but visibly hollowed and barren. The figure that is recognized as human begins developing only after the spiritual quickening of conception. The darkness that engulfs the scene is both literal and figurative, as a mother’s belly traps out light and a veil of forgetfulness blots out the memory of this Earth-bound human.
Then when the timing was right God said, “Let there be light; and there was light” (verse 3). Through the mother’s laboring effort, her baby is brought from darkness into light. God divides the light from the darkness (verse 4). Until the delivery of the placenta and the cutting of the cord, the mother and child are one continuous unit. After these events take place, the two are forever divided. At the fall, the Earth itself (along with Adam and Eve) were severed from the presence of God. It was only after the fall that the Earth took its current orbit around its new source of light: the sun.  At this separation from her mother, the newborn’s own body now has a divided experience with light; the outer body being in contact with light and the inner body being in darkness. God then divided the waters saying, “let the waters under the heaven be gathered to one place; and…let there be dry land; and it was so” (verse 6-10). The baby, who developed in an amniotic sea, has had no need for lungs up until this point. Moving from the womb to the open air, the lungs are induced to open, creating a space for “dry land” and for the exchange of gasses.
Next God populates the sterile space with an expansive variety of life forms including plants and animals (verses 11-12, 20-22). The insides of a fetus are sterile before birth. A recent developmental biology study notes that “[a]lmost immediately after a human being is born, so too is a new microbial ecosystem, one that resides in that person's gastrointestinal tract."  This is no small process. The single-celled bacterial species inhabiting an adult human’s gut out-number the cells composing the human’s body by a factor of ten, aiding us with metabolism and immunity. It is rightly stated that, “the colonization of the sterile newborn gastrointestinal tract by a thriving microbial community is a pivotal milestone in human development."  And such it was with the earth; where we have barely scratched the surface in identifying the number of species that God created to share this globe with us. Estimates range from 5 million to more than 50 million species currently living on Earth. 
After populating the earth with living things, God gave us a way of measuring time by days and seasons (verses 14-18). These light and dark patterns are not only important to the tracking of time, but they are also important to the establishment of Circadian Rhythms. This biological rhythmicity is known to be essential for normal physiological functioning.  In fact, studies indicate that the 24-hour cycling of biochemistry, physiology and behavior may not be due to only external stimuli, but may be innate in our human design as these cycles exist in many newborns who are withheld from any regular 24-hour patterns.  Finally, after a period of growth and expansion God created offspring in His own image (verse 27). He commanded these males and females, along with every other living thing, to continue on with this creation process (verse 28, see also Abraham 4:22). And so a human grows, from disorganized matter to a being capable of creating new life. And, directing it all is the pattern of a mother.
Birth and Death
In our fallen states, the creations of our mother and those of our mother earth are mortal in nature. Death is inextricably fused with birth. Just as our passage into mortality can be considered a holy sacrament, our passage out of mortality is likewise sacred and necessary for progression. The essential work of our mothers (as caretakers of light) is complemented by the essential work of our fathers (as caretakers of the word), and together they guide us toward our ultimate potential of immortality and eternal life.  Ultimately the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ makes both our mothers’ and our fathers’ work possible and complete by overcoming both death and sin. Although our mothers’ creations will die, through Christ the bonds of death were swallowed up. When Jesus Christ rose from the tomb, He first visited a woman, Mary.  In essence, he reported to Woman that her work of creation would now ultimately live. 
The inseparability of birth and death is noted in the baptismal ordinance. In the same act of submersing the entire body in water and rising out again we symbolize both death and re-birth.  King Solomon noted a similarity between the passageways into and out of mortality when he said, “he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand.  In addition to the similarities of what we take, or don’t take, with us into birth and into death, many have also noted the common resemblances of those two corridors. Researchers of death experiences have documented an abundance of individuals’ descriptions of dying which contain the imagery of a dark tunnel and a light on the other side.  Just as we enter life through a birth canal, it appears there may also exist a death canal through which we will again be brought forth into light. In Subhana Barzaghi’s essay entitled “Death is a Sacrament,” she explains:
The author further acknowledges that “women unconsciously practise these cycles of birth, death, and renewal every month, through the constant cycles of the filling and emptying of our life blood: every moon cycle."  Birth and death are two sides of the same reality. Jesus Christ taught this principle by analogy: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."  If they had not partaken of the fruit, Eve and Adam would still be alone in the Garden of Eden. Because they partook of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they accepted the reality that they would fall to the earth and die. But death did not come alone; tied to it was birth. Adam and Eve could now bear children.  Just as this introduction of death brought with it the possibility of birth, the death of Christ brought with it the possibility of re-birth. A modern-day prophet stated, “The death of Jesus Christ would not have taken place had it not been necessary."  In the weekly sacrament that commemorates His death, we break bread and drink water in symbolism of His broken flesh and spilt blood. In doing so we acknowledge the necessary and sacred nature of His death, but we also look forward with hope to the day that we will see Him again. In this we come full circle; birth gives rise to death, which gives rise to birth.
The sacrament honoring Christ’s death is analogous to the sacrament of birth performed by women. With the spilling of their own blood and the tearing of their own flesh, women bring life into the world. In the case of maternal mortality, however, the deaths are not necessary. To honor womanhood, and in turn to honor our Heavenly Parents who created us all, we have a civic duty to seek out and eliminate the causes of these unnecessary maternal injuries and deaths. By doing this we demonstrate our testimony concerning the sacred and eternal nature of woman’s role in creation. In a recent BYU devotional Elder Glenn L. Pace emphasized this certainty concerning woman’s hallowed role: “Sisters, I testify that when you stand in front of your heavenly parents in those royal courts on high and you look into Her eyes and behold Her countenance, any question you ever had about the role of women in the kingdom will evaporate into the rich celestial air, because at that moment you will see standing directly in front of you, your divine nature and destiny." 
[Postscript: The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.]
 Moses 6:63; also see Alma 30:44 and D&C 88:41-47 [Back to manuscript]
 Alma 42:8; see also 2 Nephi 9:13; Alma 12:32; Alma 34:9, 16; Alma 41:2; Alma 42:15; Moses 6:62. [Back to manuscript]
 The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 2008. “Progress for Children: A Report Card on Maternal Mortality”. September 2008:7. Available Online: http://www.unicef.org/childsurvival/files/Progress_for_Children-No._7_Lo-Res_082008.pdf/ February 2009. [Back to manuscript]
 Margaret C. Hogan. et al. Maternal Mortality for 181 countries, 1980-2008: a systematic analysis of progress toward Millennium Development Goal 5. The Lancet. 12 April, 2010. Available Online. April, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/health/14births.html?emc=eta1 . [Back to manuscript]
 Ibid. [Back to manuscript]
 C. Lang, J. King. Maternal mortality in the United States. Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology. 22: 3; 517-531. [Back to manuscript]
 Nicholas D. Kristof. July 30, 2009. The New York Times. “On the Ground: A Tipping Point on Maternal Mortality.” Available Online: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/a-tipping-point-on-maternal-mortality/. February 2009. [Back to manuscript]
 California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative. Maternal Mortality Review. Available Online. http://www.cmqcc.org/committees_projects/ca_pamr_maternal_mortality_review. March 2010. [Back to manuscript]
 Mosiah 4:26; see entire chapter. [Back to manuscript]
 Matthew 7:14; Mosiah 3:17; 1 Nephi 8:20 (19-24); 2 Nephi 33:9; Jeremiah 21:8. [Back to manuscript]
 Jeffrey R. Holland. “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” Marriott Center, Brigham Young University. Provo, Utah, 12 January 1988. [Back to manuscript]
 Alma 39:3-5 [Back to manuscript]
 “Family: Proclamation to the World”. 1995. Available Online: http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,161-1-11-1,FF.html. February 14, 2010. [Back to manuscript]
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 John 10:7 (1-15). [Back to manuscript]
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 Doctrine and Covenants 131:2-3. [Back to manuscript]
 James R. Clark. Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75, 4:203, 205. [Back to manuscript]
 Holland, 1988, op cit. [Back to manuscript]
 Doctrine and Covenants 88:15 [Back to manuscript]
 Doctrine and Covenants 93:34 [Back to manuscript]
 2 Nephi 2:25 [Back to manuscript]
 Abraham 5:7 [Back to manuscript]
 Doctrine and Covenants 93:33 [Back to manuscript]
 1 Cor. 6: 9-20; 2 Cor. 6: 16; D&C 93: 35. [Back to manuscript]
 John 2:19 [Back to manuscript]
 John 2:21 [Back to manuscript]
 Alma 11:42-45 [Back to manuscript]
 Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition. 2010. Available Online. http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/PIG_POL/PLACENTA_Lat_for_a_cake_.html. February 2010. [Back to manuscript]
 John 6:35, 48-58 [Back to manuscript]
 John 6:51 [Back to manuscript]
 Ezekiel 19:10 [Back to manuscript]
 John 15:1 [Back to manuscript]
 I Nephi 15:15 [Back to manuscript]
 John 15:5. [Back to manuscript]
 John 4:14; John 8:12; Isaiah 53:2 (see also “Christ Metaphors: A Festival of Images for Chorus and Orchestra” by Merrill Bradshaw. Available Online http://music.lib.byu.edu/LDSMusicians/bradshaw/music/top10pieces/metaphors.html. February 2010); John 11:25. [Back to manuscript]
 Isaiah 46:4. [Back to manuscript]
 Alonzo Gaskill.The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Essential Guide for Recognizing and Interpreting Symbols of the Gospel. 2003: 32. (See also: 2 Sam 16:11). [Back to manuscript]
 Isaiah 49: 1, 5, 15 and 1Nephi 21: 1,5,15. See also Genesis 25:23-24. [Back to manuscript]
 Isaiah 46:3-4 [Back to manuscript]
 Alonzo Gaskill. The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Essential Guide for Recognizing and Interpreting Symbols of the Gospel. 2003. (See also: 1 Kings 8:19; 2 Chronicles 6:9; Acts 2:30, 2 Nephi 3:4-21). [Back to manuscript]
 John 15: 4, 6-7, 10 [Back to manuscript]
 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith. 1976; 181. [Back to manuscript]
 Genesis 1:26-27; Moses 2:26-27; Abraham 4:26-27. [Back to manuscript]
 D&C 130:22. [Back to manuscript]
 John 3:3 [Back to manuscript]
 Moses 6:59-60. [Back to manuscript]
 Jeffrey R. Holland. “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments.” Brigham Young University Devotional. January 12, 1988. [Back to manuscript]
 John 16:21 [Back to manuscript]
 Isaiah 53:11 [Back to manuscript]
 Tairona Heritage Trust. “ Dictionary of 500 Kogi Words and Mythological Characters. 2008. Available Online. http://tairona.myzen.co.uk/index.php/culture/dictionary_of_500_kogi_words_and_mythological_characters/. February 2010. See also: Davis, Wade. 1996. “One River”. [Back to manuscript]
 Micah 7:9 [Back to manuscript]
 3 Nephi 10:4-6 [Back to manuscript]
 1 Nephi 21:15-16; Isaiah 49:15-16 [Back to manuscript]
 Y. Fujiki. e tal . 2009. “Fetal Cells in the Pregnant Mouse are Diverse and Express a Variety of Progenitor and Differentiated Cell Markers”. Biol Reprod. July 2009: 81 (1); 26-32. (see also “Babies’ Cells Linger, May Protect Mothers”. February 2006. NPR. Available Online http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5195551. February 2009). [Back to manuscript]
 Mosiah 15:10 [Back to manuscript]
 Mosiah 5:7 [Back to manuscript]
 JC Condon, P Jeyasuria, JM Faust and CR Mendelson. Spring 2004. Surfactant protein secreted by the maturing mouse fetal lung acts as a hormone that signals the initiation of labor. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 101:4978-4983. [Back to manuscript]
 Doctrine and Covenants 19:18-19. [Back to manuscript]
 Christiane Northrup. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. New York: Bantam .1994: 494. [Back to manuscript]
 Craig H. Kinsley. “Motherhood and the Hormones of Pregnancy Modify Concentrations of Hippocampal Neuronal Dendritic Spines”. Hormones and Behavior. February 2006. 49,2 :131-142. [Back to manuscript]
 Isaiah 40:11 [Back to manuscript]
 J Winberg. 2005. “Mother and Newborn Baby: Mutual Regulation of Physiology and Behavior—A Selective Review”. Developmental Psychobiology. 47(3), 217–229. [Back to manuscript]
 Alma 7:12 [Back to manuscript]
 2 Nephi 2:4,26-27; Romans 6:18,20,22; D&C 98:8; 1 Cor. 7:21-22; 2 Nephi 10:23; Helaman 14:30; 4 Nephi 1:3. [Back to manuscript]
 John 8:36 [Back to manuscript]
 A. Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler. Women in Eternity Women in Zion. Springville: Cedar Fort. 2004, 9, 8, 13, emphasis added. [Back to manuscript]
 Genesis 3:15: Moses 4:21 [Back to manuscript]
 A. Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler. Women in Eternity Women in Zion. Springville: Cedar Fort. 2004: 75-76. [Back to manuscript]
 Moses 4:26 [Back to manuscript]
 Moses 5:11 [Back to manuscript]
 A. Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler. Women in Eternity Women in Zion. Springville: Cedar Fort. 2004: 144. [Back to manuscript]
 Ibid, 146.[Back to manuscript]
 Ibid. 149. [Back to manuscript]
 Ibid, 158. [Back to manuscript]
 Sheri L. Dew. “Are We Not All Mothers?” Ensign. November 2001, 96. [Back to manuscript]
 Brigham Young. 1874. Journal of Discourses. Vol.17: 144. [Back to manuscript]
 C Palmer, EM Bik, DB DiGiulio, et al. Development of the human infant intestinal microbiota. PLoS Biol. 2007;5(7):1556–1573. [Back to manuscript]
 L. Gross. (2007) Microbes Colonize a Baby’s Gut with Distinction. PLoS Biol 5(7): e191. [Back to manuscript]
 Robert M. May. 1988. How Many Species are There on Earth? Science. Vol 4872; 1441-1449. [Back to manuscript]
 E Begum, M Bonno, M Obata, H Yamamoto, M Kawai, Y Komada. 2006. Emergence of physiological rhythmicity in term and preterm neonates in a neonatal intensive care unit. J Circadian Rhythms. Sep 11;4:11. [Back to manuscript]
 See the following source for further explanation of “caretakers of light” and “caretakers of the word”: A. Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler. Women in Eternity Women in Zion. Springville: Cedar Fort. 2004: 144. [Back to manuscript]
 Thanks to Sorensen and Cassler highlighting this point in their book. See: Women in Eternity Women in Zion. 2004: 144. [Back to manuscript]
 In consequence of eating the fruit, God told Adam and Eve, “thou shalt surely die”. See Genesis 2:17 and Moses 3:17. The scriptures also teach that “in Christ shall all be made alive.” See 1 Cor 15:22 and 2 Nephi 25:25. [Back to manuscript]
 Romans 6:4-5 [Back to manuscript]
 Ecclesiastes 5:15 see also Job 1:21 [Back to manuscript]
 Susan J. Blckmore and Tom S. Troscianko. 1989 .“The Physiology of the Tunnel.” Journal of Near-Death Studies. 8:1; 15-28. [Back to manuscript]
 Subhana Barzaghi. 1993. “Death is a Sacrament.” DharmaWeb. Available Online: http://www.dharmaweb.org/index.php/Death_is_a_Sacrament_Teisho_by_Subhana_Barzaghi,_Roshi. February 2010. [Back to manuscript]
 Ibid. See also the tale of ‘Skeletal Woman’ from Clarissa Pincola Estes’ book “Women who Run with the Wolves”. [Back to manuscript]
 John 12:24; Further explanation found in 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. [Back to manuscript]
 Moses 5:11 [Back to manuscript]
 Elder Glenn L. Pace. “The Divine Nature and Destiny of Women.” BYU Devotional March 2010. Available Online. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58956/BYU-devotional-Elder-Glenn-L-Pace-The-divine-nature-and-destiny-of-women.html March 2010. [Back to manuscript]
Full Citation for This Article: Leonhardt, Analiesa (2010) "The Sacrament of Birth," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleLeonhardtBirth.html, accessed [give access date].
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1) Lisa Bushman, 12 May 2010
As a mother and childbirth educator, I've also thought a great deal about the spiritual symbolism of birth and noted many birth-related scriptures and symbols, but had not thought of the straight gate and narrow way in terms of birth. Also, I've considered the placenta a tree of life, but had not considered the analogies with the bread of life and the vine as Analiesa does here. Beautiful.
I wonder about the accuracy of the claim: "Perhaps it should go without saying that being born the first time is also essential in order to enter the kingdom of heaven." Perhaps it hasn't been said because we don't know for sure. Certainly gaining a body is necessary, and in utero gestation and vaginal birth is the divine design and pattern for birth, complete with the beautiful scriptural imagery described above. We don't know if "unborn" children must be given a second chance at physical birth in order to fully develop the bodies initially begun for them by their mortal parents (and their spirits created by Heavenly Parents) or if the development promised them is able to occur in some other way. Since naturally occuring miscarriages account for a stagering percentage of pregnancies (30-40%) this is not an insignificant question, and it seems to be part of divine design since it occurs so often. We do not even know for sure if Adam and Eve were born in the traditional manner. But we are promised that those who die without knowledge/understanding--and particularly little children under the age of accountability--are alive in Christ. We know there is the possibility of rebirth (ie spiritual birth AND physical resurrection) through Christ even for those spirits who were not able to experience mortal birth into their second estate through the traditional route, whether due to natural circumstances (miscarriage and still birth), medical emergency, or even accidents or bad choices of their biological parents or providers. Knowledge of this grace should not prevent us from seeking to understand, improve birth outcomes, and honor the sacredness of birth, however, any more than knowledge that we can be made whole through Christ would prevent us from any other aspect of healthy and righteous living.
As I have taught my children about the sacramental symbols of bread and water/ flesh and blood, I have explained that as a baby develops and grows one cell at a time from the nutrients the mother eats, and as her blood brings both those nutrients and the water that sustains all life to her growing child, so too Christ gives us the bread of life line upon line, precept upon precept, one concept, one principle, one grace at a time until the perfect day. Also, the amniotic fluid is exchanged throughout each day, and the blood carries waste/impurities away and she excretes the child's waste with her own, one little particle at a time. How like the living water and repentance and healing the Savior offers us through the Atonement. It is no wonder that flesh and blood/bread and water are symbols of both birth/life and redemption/sanctification/salvation.
My hope is that this article encourages individuals to seek all three (increased understanding of birth, improved birth outcomes worldwide, and deepened reverence of birth). Thank you for writing, submitting, and posting "The Sacrament of Birth."
2) The author, Analiesa Leonhardt, responds to Lisa Bushman, 12 May 2010:
I appreciate your thoughtful response to my piece. I love the notion of the placenta as the tree of life. Since reading that, my brain has been swimming with all sorts of extensions from that analogy. Also, thank you for sharing the enriching comparison of amniotic fluid to the living water. I love that you are teaching these concepts to your children. If only I’d talked with you before publishing this! Of course, early in the writing process I recognized that it was beyond me to compile a comprehensive account of all scripture and doctrine relevant to childbirth. I only hoped it would stir more thinking on the matter, and so I am very grateful for your comments.
3) Laraine Thompson, 12 May 2010
I found Analiesa Leonhardt’s “The Sacrament of Birth” brilliantly conceived (no pun intended). Her research was impeccably presented. I found the interweaving of scriptural accounts of creation and Christ’s atonement with the woman’s experience of birth fascinating, eye-opening. She has given fresh meaning to our maternal experiences. I understand anew the power of our title, our name, that of “Mother”. Mothers Day will never be the same!
I have only one concern. In her thesis presentation, she mentions the rise in maternal mortality rates in the U.S. She then abandons treatment of that part of her thesis and only mentions it again, in passing, in the final paragraph. Yes, we can make a cause to lower that rate. Having introduced it in the beginning (again, no pun), shouldn’t she have made it part of her brilliant discussion? Or was this mention just a pc plug in a piece otherwise devoid of politics? I, for one, did not miss the politics; however, having once mentioned mortality rates, I expected a more thorough discussion of her observations regarding such. It just seemed to be an incongruency in an otherwise tightly and wonderfully presented treatise of our shared experiences as women.
I am delighted to have found Square Two! It helps answers my need to drink more fully of the Gospel. I look forward to future publications with great anticipation.
4) The author, Analiesa Leonhardt, responds to Laraine Thompson, 12 May 2010
Thank you for your generous compliments and your thoughtful critique. My primary goal in compiling these thoughts was to focus on the spiritual and sacred nature of childbirth, with the added light that LDS doctrine can shed on the matter. In doing so, it became obvious to me (and apparently to you too) that this ennobling view of motherhood could reach beyond an inward “change of heart” toward women, and could also reflect outwardly on our physical care of women through these life changes. You were right in noting a gap in my coverage of the latter. Thank you for drawing this to my attention. This incongruency in addressing all parts of my thesis was the unintended consequence of simply making the spiritual perspective my main focus. In retrospect, my brief summation tying back to Maternal Mortality Rates is incomplete. I will attempt to fill in this gap here.
Thanks so much for your insights,