Something is missing from the nativity scene: midwives. It’s hard for me to believe that Mary gave birth with the sole help of Joseph. Most likely, there were a couple of women helping. Maybe the innkeeper’s wife or daughter, or maybe a compassionate woman staying at the inn. History is quiet on the matter, but in my imagination, there were plenty of women helpers in that stable. In fact, Orthodox icons of the nativity often show a couple of women taking care of the baby. I think the midwives are there to show that Jesus was actually born as every other human is. He didn’t just magically appear. But I also like the idea that Mary was in the company of other women, of helpers, of newfound friends, as she gave birth.
I have been thinking a lot about birth and what it means. What it means that midwives might have been the first humans to touch Jesus. What it means that the savior of the world (if he is that) came to us through a woman, with the help of women. Birth is a messy thing. There is sweat and blood and fluids. There is grunting and crying and breathing. There is pain and fear. People who think that women are squeamish should talk to some midwives. They should talk to mothers who birthed children into this world amid sweat and pain.
The first time I gave birth was hard, scary, and tiring. I was exhausted and the next morning when my doctor came to visit me, I burst into tears and cried for 30 minutes straight. The second birth was easy and much more relaxed. I went home after only one night in the hospital. Now my children are 10 and 8 and still call me “Mama.” I am their security. They get mad at me sometimes, but I know they love and want me. They want independence, but they also want the assurance of a mother who’ll cook them breakfast, sit by them on the couch, help them with homework, and listen to their problems. What does it mean that I birthed these people into the world?
The birth of Jesus used to feel like a magical, holy event, but now it feels incredibly human. Like all of us, Jesus came forth in blood and sweat. Jesus came into the hands of life-givers, of birth-helpers. His mother pushed and yelled just like I did. Someone was there to help her just like the doctor and nurses and my husband were there to help me. And then she heard her baby’s cry and wept tears of exhaustion and love just like I did.
Maybe birth means coming into your most raw human self. Maybe it means tunneling through fear and being caught by hands of light. Maybe it’s something we can never do by ourselves, that we have to depend on the help of other humans for. Even God needed our help.
This Christmas I want birth. I want rebirth. I want a fresh start. I want to cry my lungs out and come through the tunnel into the capable hands of beloved friends. I want midwives at Christmas, mysterious women who will touch my skin and know I am reborn.
What a lovely, original and thoughtful post. This will be on my mind for quite some time. Have a blessed Christmas!
I’ve always thought the women in the icon who are bathing the baby Jesus were also Mary’s midwives. No one ever told me that, but somehow it seems fitting. Good article, as always.