From My Mother’s Womb, You Are My Strength

There were several especially interesting readings for the recent Solemnity of St. John the Baptist. One set begins with this text from Jeremiah 1:5:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.

The responsorial psalm was a selection of verses from Psalm 71 that contained these lines:

R.   Since my mother’s womb, you have been my strength.
     Be my rock of refuge,
     a stronghold to give me safety,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
O my God, rescue me from the hand of the wicked.
R.    Since my mother’s womb, you have been my strength.
For you are my hope, O Lord;
     my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
On you I depend from birth;
     from my mother’s womb you are my strength.

The other option for the day contained a reading from Isaiah 49 that included these two passages:

The LORD called me from birth,
     from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. (Is 49:1)

. . . my reward is with the LORD,
     my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
     who formed me as his servant from the womb. (Is 49:4-5)

The responsorial psalm that went with that reading was taken from Psalm 139 and contained these popular words:  “I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made.”  The sermon I heard that day took its basic theme from these words.  I am grateful any time the readings of the day are mentioned in a homily, but I have yet to hear anyone comment on the following words in that same psalm:

R.   I praise you for I am wonderfully made.
Truly you have formed my inmost being;
     you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made.

Both sets of readings make sense as precursors to the Gospel reading for the day, which recounts the story of John’s naming.  When Elizabeth announced that the child in her womb would be named John, her family members objected, saying that no one else in the family had that name. When they appealed to Zechariah, who had been struck dumb during his service in the Temple, he wrote:  “His name is John,” and his tongue was loosed.

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What should we make of all this?  Well, one thing we might take from it is the rather obvious conclusion that human beings are “known by God” in the womb. Or to put this in modern terms, fetuses are persons intended by God.

I am aware that a Scriptural argument of this sort would not be credible to the non-Christians in our society. Fine.  But what about the rest of us? What about Catholics? What about our Protestant brethren? Wasn’t the Protestant Reformation supposed to be about defending the Scriptures as the inspired and authoritative word of God?

Scholars throughout history, both Protestant and Catholic, have pored over the Scriptures diligently, exhaustively, trying to unlock its innermost secrets in the conviction that the Scriptures contain the words of truth and life.  Is something hidden or obscure in the passages I’ve quoted? Or is it not rather that the truth of the matter is proclaimed like a loud trumpet blast? Is Christ both fully man and fully God from the moment of His conception or not? If He is, then all the rest of mankind is fully human from the moment of their conception too. And if so, then one cannot “terminate” these lives without violating the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Please understand, this isn’t meant as a partisan political appeal.  I set it before any reader who is Christian as an existential choice. Do the Scriptures contain God’s inspired word and truth or not?  And if they do, are we really listening to God’s word to understand what it teaches and to heed its directives? Or are we picking through to find passages that fit our prejudices and preconceptions while avoiding the ones calling us to something we might find unpleasant?  Have we, like so many in Christ’s day, simply closed our ears, our minds, and our hearts to a message we need to hear?

Because if the constant teaching of the Church that has for centuries unequivocally condemned abortion is to be easily ignored and if even the words of the Scriptures have become a dead letter to us, then I really have no idea who we are or what we’re doing in all these “Christian” churches.  Are we simply making ourselves feel better about ourselves?  Banking some “brownie points” to earn our way into heaven – or perhaps into the local country club?

If we fail to be moved by God’s word and harden our heart against these little ones, can we really call ourselves “Christians” in any serious sense?  Wouldn’t we be guilty of the “cheap grace” that the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about?  Could any of our blessed ancestors who gave their lives in defense of the faith fail to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of this generation, much the way we are disgusted at the hypocrisy of the German Christians who failed to condemn the murders of millions of Jews?

The slaughter of 66-million children in the womb since 1973, each of whom (if the Scriptures are telling the truth) is “known by God” and “fearfully and wonderfully made,” is no more “just another issue” than was the slaughter of 6-million Jews.  No one cares now about the labor policies of the 1937 German government.  We only care that Christians didn’t protect 6 million Jews from slaughter.

If we turn a blind eye to the wholesale slaughter in our own midst, if we do not see in each one of these unborn children the handiwork of the Creator, can we really face the God who made both them and us?  More is at stake than Republican vs. Democrat.

 

*Image: The Fetus in the Womb by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1511 [Royal Trust Collection, London]

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.