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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There is No Finish Line

 Who could not be absolutely in love with Gabby Douglas? With Alex Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, and Kyla Ross…the Fab Five who won our hearts and medals at the Olympics?  Along with so many athletes we are watching intently, cheering for, sighing for, disappointed with and celebrating with, they are paragons of health, of beauty, of achievement, of competitiveness, of winning.  Even when they fall short (literally off of a balance beam) we know they are at the Olympics because they are the best in the world.

As I watch night after night in my bed, my bedroom being the only place I have a television (very small) and air conditioner (very noisy), I find myself wondering what it is that these young women and the other athletes at the Olympics have that has made them the great athletes they are.  Is it exceptional physical abilities, a drive and commitment to their sport, parents who devoted themselves and their children to rigorous training, some unknown Higgs Boson-like God particle that they were born with? (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/07/120704-god-particle-higgs-boson-new-cern-science/)

I did a little very non-scientific research on “what makes athletes great?”  Here are a couple of results.  The first is from a New York Times blog for junior high students. This is an answer from a 13 year old:

 Okay a lot of things make athlete storng and those things can be by eatting good and also by trying there best.but most importantly is when they never give up  http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/what-makes-an-athlete-great/

This one is from an article in Shape magazine from a couple of days ago:

In my opinion, it’s not just the amount of medals you win or how many events you compete in. There is definitely a lot more to being an Olympian than that. I believe athletes like Wilma Rudolph and Jesse Owens epitomize what it means to be an exceptional athlete. Rudolph was born prematurely and spent the bulk of her childhood in bed. She suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and later she contacted polio. After losing the use of her left leg, she was fitted with metal leg braces when she was only six. However, years of treatment and determination to be a “normal kid” worked, and Rudolph was out of her leg braces at age nine. She went on to become a basketball star before taking the track and field world by storm and ultimately went on to win three golds and one bronze at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. From there, she became the fastest woman in the world and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics.  http://www.shape.com/blogs/london-2012-summer-olympics/what-makes-olympic-athlete-great

Never giving up and overcoming difficulties seem to be favored ingredients, and certainly we have seen that night after night.  Gabby Douglas actually did fall off the balance beam and got back on; she didn’t win a medal in that competition and she knew she wouldn’t win, but she got back on that narrow strip of hard wood and jumped and tumbled and vaulted off.

Two things were going on in my head as I was watching event after event and pondering the question of what makes these athletes great: they were perhaps more subliminal than rational thoughts.  One was the often-played snippet from the Phillip Phillips song, Home.

Just know you’re not alone, Cause I’m going to make this place your home

And there they were accompanied by the song: the women’s gymnastics team, the audience cheering, the parents, the coaches.  The Karolyis and Liang Chow literally going to the mats and challenging Alex Raisman’s score to secure her bronze medal on the beam. Win or a fall, you are not alone.

The other had nothing to do with the Olympics.  It was an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section from July 29 that I kept getting distracted from and kept being pulled back to.  The picture on the first page of the article, titled Hope in the Wreckage, was of two women who could not look less like Olympic athletes.  Claudia Cox, a visiting nurse is pictured kneeling on one knee at the bed of a women dying of bone cancer at home.  “Just know you’re not alone,” the lyrics seeped into my head.  But it wasn’t just the photo. Claudia Cox works in Jackson, Mississippi a place with some of the worst health outcomes in the country.  Sixty-nine percent of adult Mississippians are obese or overweight: at least 25% of the state’s households do not have access to healthy foods, adequate grocery stores being up to 30 miles away.  The article notes that many of these families buy their groceries at gas station convenience stores. Mississippi has the highest teen birth rate and Human Rights Watch calls the state “the epicenter of the H.I.V. epidemic in the United States.”  Tragic human wreckage indeed. So where was the Hope?  The Hope is Claudia Cox working for an organization called HealthConnect which was founded by Dr. Aaron Shirley and Mohammad Shahbazi, a professor at Jackson State University, based on the community outreach and very personal home care in a program in Iran. The Iranians founded “health houses,” local huts that contain exam rooms and sleeping quarters for community health workers in rural areas to reach the population living in more than 60,000 villages outside the urban areas of Iran.  The community health workers who are all from the villages themselves, “advise on nutrition and family planning, take blood pressure, keep track of who needs prenatal care, provide immunizations and monitor environmental conditions like water quality.”  The services of the health houses lowered rural infant mortality by 75% and substantially lowered the birth rate, two benchmarks of overall improvements in the health of a population.  Dr. Shirley, impressed with the positive impact on health outcomes in Iran, adopted many of the same services, mostly local community members/health workers establishing close personal relationships with patients, encouraging them, counseling them, advocating for them. In one year the services of HealthConnect cut the rate of admissions to Central Mississippi Medical Center by 15%. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/07/27/magazine/mississippi-health-care.html#

I have seen these same health strategies and relationships in the home visiting programs in Costa Rica, in Resource Mother projects in Norfolk, Virginia, in the MIRA project in Nepal.  Community health workers, peer educators, home visitors teaching, supporting and advocating which all comes down to what the best coaches do for the best athletes.

The positive differences in any of our lives are often the results of coaching.  I will never play tennis at the Olympics, I am not even seeded and I don’t play at an exclusive club, but I do have a coach.  Bill is the best; he knows just how to keep me improving and “playing up,” without my getting frustrated (although he occasionally slams one past me just to keep me humble.)  He is also a person who has been there most weekends through many of my life’s changes over the past 7 years.  I missed the opening ceremonies for the Olympics because I was out with two of my other coaches, my yoga buddies Lauren and Julie who have also coached me as friends and guides.  My daughters Kristin, Kierra and Alex keep me balanced and let me fall and are there to get me back up or just sit on the floor with me for a while.  Carol has been coaching me since I was 5. Heller An who is a triathaloner knows good coaching.  I am fortunate to have many wonderful coaches.

Sure we all have our gifts, we all have our challenges, our abilities and disabilities, and some very exceptional people to dazzle and inspire us in Olympic events.  They show us what can be.  So does Claudia Cox.  So do each of us when we refuse to give up, when we open ourselves to being coached and when we assure others that “you are not alone.”

Home Phillip Phillips

or

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dfTURAhrTY

Hold on, to me as we go

As we roll down this unfamiliar road

And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone

Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear

Don’t pay no mind to the demons

They fill you with fear

The trouble it might drag you down

If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone

Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear

Don’t pay no mind to the demons

They fill you with fear

The trouble it might drag you down

If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone

Cause I’m going to make this place your home