Away in a manger

July 18, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Originally posted November 2009:

We had a fun little family night last December. We sang some Christmas songs around the piano, made a Christmas ornament, and then watched The Nativity–a short depiction of the birth of Jesus. Here’s a YouTube version (this one has been put to music, but the original actually has the actor’s voices and animal sound effects).
I’ve seen this short film many times before, but this time it was different. Perhaps it was different because I so recently gave birth myself. Or because I’ve got birth stories on the brain. For the first time, I was seeing it as a “birth movie” instead of just a “Christmas movie.” As it came closer to the moment of birth, I found myself getting a little teary-eyed. While I’m not usually a crier, birth movies (and spiritual experiences) always get me. And then, as Mary neared the birth, probably in “transition”(3:40 in the youtube version), being comforted by her loving husband and midwife, I yelled at the screen, not unlike some men yell at the television when a football is fumbled. What did I yell?

“Oh, get off your back, for the love! She would not have been on her back!”

My husband’s response? “Hey, at least she had a midwife!

Yep. I yelled at the Virgin Mary… sort of. Then I couldn’t help myself. I got wondering, and the gears in my head started going, and I had to know details.

My first question… would Joseph have even been with her? “The Nativity” depicts him tenderly touching her as she endures her labor. As it turns out, that would never have happened between a Jewish couple in those circumstances. Under Jewish law, once a woman has reached active labor, she gains the ritual status of yoledet. Her husband is then no longer able to physically touch her and is prohibited from seeing her naked (and from staring directly at her vaginal opening). She will remain in the ritual status of yoledet until she has had no bleeding for seven days and will then immerse in a ritual bath allowing her to resume physical contact with her husband. Some modern rabbis prohibit fathers from being present in the delivery room. The Bible itself does not specify where Joseph was, but, given the laws, I think it’s unlikely he was present in the same space as Mary during the birth. However, the shepherds did find them together afterward.

My next question… who was with her then? The Bible does indicate that midwives delivered babies in the Jewish tradition. So this is one point that “The Nativity” got right. I think it’s likely Mary was attended by at least one, probably several women. Some sources indicate that Joseph and Mary would actually have been staying with relatives in Joseph’s ancestral home (probably on the first floor which was often used to house animals), so she would likely have had experienced aunts or cousins assisting her. If not relatives, then surely a few of Bethlehem’s womenfolk would have been fetched.

How would she have given birth? Definitely not on her back! No ancient woman would have lain on her back to give birth. I think it’s safe to say, without question, that it never would have occurred to them. Mary would have spent her labor doing whatever felt most comfortable. The Bible indicates that birthing stools (called ovnayim) were often used.

Would it really have been a “silent night”? Well it wasn’t silent in “The Nativity,” and it probably wasn’t in reality. Between the animals and the typical birthing sounds, I’d wager it was pretty noisy in there all night long.

So now my mental image of Christ’s birth has been completely renovated. I’ve been a birth-lover for over 6 years, so it’s about time. I will no longer imagine Mary semi-recumbent or flat on her back pushing Jesus out in an open stable. Instead, I will envision her upright, surrounded and lovingly supported by women (and angels) beneath the shelter of a warm ancestral home where no doubt countless babies had been welcomed. It’s going to take some getting-used-to, but I like it.