Glory to the Newborn

Madonna

I have been thinking a lot lately about the birth of Jesus. There is of course an obvious reason for this: the recent Christmas season with the full-on gift buying, festive food and drink consumption, decorated trees, store windows of lavish jewels and designer attire in snow filled glass enclosures, and perpetual email blasts of seductive sales and free shipping from the Amazon and the Beyond of Beds and Baths, as well as every other online shopping site.   In the air were the strains of Silver Bells and Sleigh Bells and Joy to the World, a Silent Night Away in a Manger with Herald Angels Singing, “Hark!” And scattered here and there were Nativity scenes on billboards, in front of churches, along my daughters’ street in Jersey City, a lovely one in front of their neighbors’ house. I have two Nativities: one from Ireland, the figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby accompanied by a sheep and a cow simply carved in stone, and one from Brazil, each of the collection of shepherds, wise men, cactuses, cows, sheep, lambs, camels, as well as the Holy Family and an Angel crafted by hand out of clay and painted in bright colors. In all of these crèches and scenes, the baby Jesus is swaddled in a little bed, sometimes of actual straw, sometimes he is sleeping, sometimes reaching up to touch Mary, a lamb or Heaven. And this is what got me really thinking about the birth of Jesus, the actual birth of Jesus.

 

I think everyone pretty much knows the story of Christmas, even non-Christians since it is proclaimed, preached, advertised, and I am sure tweeted just about every place. My sister Rosemary lovingly sends the account of the story by the Apostle Luke ever year with her Christmas card in some very creative way.  Here it is:

Luke 2:1-20 New International Version: The Birth of Jesus 

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

 

All of the accounts are pretty similar. Mary and Joseph in the manger, baby Jesus is born, shepherds show up and a few days later following a star, the wise men come for a visit bringing gifts. But there is a gap in this story and in that gap is the birth of Jesus, yes, Mary in labor and giving birth.

 

Now I am not faulting the authors of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They were men, writing for men, so it makes sense that there would not be a detailed description of Mary’s labor and delivery, not to mention what was probably unmentionable at the time and perhaps even now, that Mary was a woman, with a woman’s anatomy, and she ached just like a woman, she gave birth just like a woman, to paraphrase Bob Dylan.

 

Since I couldn’t find a specific account of the birth of Jesus, just based on common knowledge and my own experience of child birth, there are only two ways that babies are born. And since there is no documentation that Mary had a C-section, there is only one way that Jesus left Mary’s body, was then swaddled and placed in that bed of straw. In “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” there is the line, “Off-spring of the Virgin’s Womb.” Womb is about as graphic as anyone gets about Mary’s lady parts.

 

Now I don’t want to get into a theological debate here, because this really isn’t about theology it’s about childbirth in Israel in first century AD. There is apparently a belief that Jesus without opening, tearing, or causing any pain, simply passed through Mary’s uterus and landed in that bed of straw all neatly dressed and tidy. I have to say that this falls into the same category as Athena as an adult woman fully clothed in armor springing from the head of Jove or the golden haired voluptuous Venus floating onto a beach in a big clam shell. This may be the way male Greco-Roman gods gave birth, but that is not quite the stuff of Humanity.

 

To back me up on this there is an account in this article from Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lexington, Kentucky:

There is absolutely nothing in this text or any other text that speaks of Christ’s birth that suggests that His birth was anything but normal. Mary would have gone into labor, would have encountered the pains of childbirth; Jesus would have born naturally as all children at this time. Any accounts that speak of Jesus passing miraculously through the walls of the uterus must be dismissed as pious superstition that detracts from the reality of our Lord’s incarnation and human nature.

(I was raised a Lutheran so I’m going with it.)

There may be great disagreement about how and by whom Jesus was conceived and certainly much disagreement about his death/resurrection, but his birth is pretty straightforward.

So I did some research on childbirth in Israel in the time of Jesus. This is from a site called Childbirth in the Bible:

 

Hebrew women gave birth in their own tents or houses. During labor they were surrounded by other women: a midwife, their relatives and friends, and female servants of the family. They would certainly have seen other women give birth, so they knew what to expect and what to do.

Hebrew women gave birth in a squatting position, above a hole hollowed out of the ground. On either side of the hole were bricks or stones for the woman to stand on. She was supported at her back and under her arms by other women, either midwives or family members. As soon as the baby was born its umbilical cord was cut, then it was washed and wrapped in long bands of cloth (swaddling bands) which held the limbs of the baby firmly, though not tightly.

It was obvious to the ancient Israelites that the central task of women, one that could not be taken over by anyone else, was childbirth. It was also obvious that women suffered in the process of giving birth. The explanation for this, according to Genesis, was that the original balance of creation had been disturbed: in an ideal world (that is, the Garden of Eden) birth would not bring suffering.

(Before I go on, I can’t help myself from commenting on the issue of labor pain having to do with anything in Genesis. Human birth is painful because unlike our quadruped friends, i.e., cats, dogs, sheep, cows horses, whose unborn babies hang slinglike in the hammock of a uterus suspended between four posts/their four legs, our human babies hang between two legs in a uterus that has to be kept tightly closed until the appropriate time of birth, or they would just be pulled out by gravity at anytime and would not survive; the human race would not have made it past Adam and Eve. Opening up and pushing against those tight muscles that have held the baby in for 9 months is painful. I learned this in an undergraduate anthropology class taught by a wonderful professor and anthropologist named Dr. Margaret Wheeler at Stony Brook University, and since have personally experienced this three times with the births of each of my big, beautiful, brainy daughters.)

 

So back to Israel: first of all kudos to the women and midwives delivering babies at home who knew that the best position for birthing was squatting and not lying on one’s back in stirrups, which became the “modern way” to give birth about 200 years ago as dictated by predominantly male doctors in hospitals.

 

Here’s an excerpt from an article on evidence based positions for childbirth:

Researchers hypothesize that pushing in an upright position is beneficial for multiple reasons. In an upright position, gravity can assist in bringing the baby down and out. Also, when a woman is upright, there is less risk of compressing the mother’s aorta and thus a better oxygen supply to the baby. Upright positioning also helps the uterus contract more strongly and efficiently and helps the baby get in a better position to pass through the pelvis. Finally, X-ray evidence has shown that the actual dimensions of the pelvic outlet become wider in the squatting and kneeling/hands-knees positions (Gupta et al. 2012). However, despite these proposed benefits of pushing in an upright position, most women in the U.S. give birth either lying on their backs (57%) or in a semi-sitting/lying position with the head of the bed raised up (35%). A small minority of women give birth in alternative positions such as side lying (4%), squatting or sitting (3%), or hands-knees position (1%) (Declercq, Sakala et al. 2007). It is thought that most women are encouraged to push in a lying or semi-sitting positions because it is more convenient for the doctor. October 2, 2012 by Rebecca Dekker, PhD, RN, APRN
© Copyright Evidence Based Birth.  http://evidencebasedbirth.com/what-is-the-evidence-for-pushing-positions/

Put succinctly by Hannah Dahlen, Professor of Midwifery at University of Western Sydney:

So, what began as a change in birth positions for the convenience of men has been shown scientifically to be an inconvenience for women and babies. It’s time for Australian women to stand and deliver once again.   (This is an excellent article. You can read it at http://theconversation.com/stand-and-deliver-upright-births-best-for-mum-and-bub-13095 )

The writings of the Roman doctor, Soranus of Ephesus (which I have visited and is now in Turkey), who in first century AD wrote a four volume treatise on Gynecology, may have reflected practices in Israel, that it was common for midwives and women to have supplies available to assist in labor and delivery:

For normal labour one must prepare beforehand: olive oil, warm water, warm fomentations, soft sea sponges, pieces of wool, strips of cloth, a pillow, things to smell, a midwife’s stool or chair, two beds and a proper room:

  • oil for injection and lubrication
  • warm water in order that the parts may be cleansed
  • warm fomentations for alleviation of the pains
  • sea sponges for gently washing the body
  • pieces of wool in order that the woman’s parts be covered
  • bandages the so new born may be swaddled
  • a pillow in front of the woman, on which the baby is placed till the afterbirth has been taken care of
  • good things to smell, such as penny royal, a clod of earth, barley groats, as well as an apple and a quince … to revive the labouring woman.’
  • (Soranus, Gynaecology, What Must One Prepare for Labour?)
  • Except for mentioning a clean blade, these could be items in a birthing kit.

But although these Israeli women had the advantage of upright deliveries, midwives, and supplies to ease pain and promote healing, the lack of prenatal care and healthy nutrition due to extreme poverty resulted in deaths of 25% to 30% mothers and babies. Mary and Joseph were poor as depicted in the Christmas story having to stay in the “manger” or the lower level of a private home where the animals were kept. The young 15 year old Mary must have been healthy, with a pelvis large enough accommodate a safe birth, and the survival of herself and her baby. The straw and flooring, and the blade used to cut the umbilical cord must have been clean enough so that neither of them contracted a life threatening infection.   One way or the other, survival of mother and baby was a miracle.

There is a video produced by National Geographic that aired on June 11, 2012 called Mysteries of the Bible: The Birth of Jesus that you may want to watch: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/episodes/birth-of-jesus

So why does any of this matter? What difference does it make how the baby Jesus, adored as a Savior by many and by many more honored as a child who grew into a great man and teacher, was born 2000 years ago? It matters because every baby has the right to be born safely, to be adored and to grow into someone to be honored for their gifts. It is my hope that Mary during the birth of Jesus was surrounded by shepherds, women who knew how to give the best care to a woman during labor and “shepherd” the baby through all of the stages of birth: contractions, crowning and delivery; that wise people brought the supplies needed to reduce pain and promote healing: olive oil, soft clean sponges, a pillow, things to smell, a birthing stool, a clean blade; that the animals gave off heat from their bodies to keep mother and baby warm; and that after Jesus was born, Mary was held and comforted by the women around her and by Joseph, and she was able to rest and adore her baby. This is the beautiful story we have missed in the Gospels and the Nativities. The birth of Jesus.

 

My hope is also that we continue to commit ourselves to the safe and loving birth of every baby, especially babies and their mothers at risk, who need the shepherds of midwives and community health workers, trained birth attendants and doctors. Who need wise people to provide the clean supplies of birthing kits and birthing places in their homes or clinics or hospitals where mothers can rest, and heal and adore their babies.

Glory to the Newborns and their Madonnas.

Peace on Earth

Nepali Madonna

Mother and Child, photo by Karel Amaranth, Kathmandu, Nepal, December 2010

top of post:  Madonna and Child, painting by David Saintus, Haiti, December 2008

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