Midwives at the manger
December 24, 2021
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth. . . .” Luke 2:6-7
Did you ever hear an emergency childbirth story with fewer details? And though this birth narrative was told by “Luke, the physician,” something clearly got lost in the translation.
To be fair, the Gospel writer was setting the stage for an incarnational moment. There were a couple of surprise pregnancies, a few angels, several prophecies, a stable with a handy manger, and then “peace-on-earth” and “good-news-of-great-joy.” But to the two young people far from home and without resources at the most vulnerable moment of their lives, the events leading up to their son’s birth may have been prophetic and even poetic, but must also have been traumatic. You have to wonder: Who helped Mary with the stages of labor, the delivery, the aftermath of birthing, the beginning of nursing?
Joseph may have been her only coach and companion. My guess, though, is that Mary and Joseph were not really on their own through this frightening, first-time birthing experience. I suspect that my Nativity scene is missing someone and that yours is too.
I believe there were midwives at the manger.
In first-century Palestine, it would been unacceptable for Mary to have a baby without the presence and help of women. The people of that day were not far removed from their desert heritage where hospitality was a prime directive. In addition, the labor and delivery of a first-time mother was typically long, dangerous, and unpredictable. So even though Mary and Joseph were far from home and possibly unable to pay a midwife, chances are good that their innkeeper host or hostess called for one or more women to serve in this role.
Apocryphal sources mention two midwives being present at Jesus’ birth. And the tradition of the midwives made their way into early nativity plays and religious art. Tracing midwifery through written history is difficult, however, because the issues of women, like those of other marginalized groups, weren’t often considered historically significant.
The Lucan omission is curious, however. Midwives are mentioned in Exodus (1:15-21). They resisted Pharaoh’s command to kill the infant boys born to Hebrew women. Why did the Bethlehem midwife or midwives disappear from what is, arguably, the most important birth in the Bible?
We won’t ever know, of course. But these unmentioned women probably helped to bring Jesus into the world – more than the angels or the shepherds.
Each year as we celebrate the birth of Jesus we have another opportunity to bring Jesus into the world without all the baggage of the past. The question is—will we have the courage and intention to do it? Rather than allowing Mary and Joseph to do all the work, we become midwives at the manger, each and every year, partners with God in bringing hope, peace, and the possibility of salvation and justice into the world.
Who are the others who remain unmentioned, unseen and unrecognized for us this Christmas? We are served by many people all year in our churches, homes, work and lives. How are we remembering those who serve and who may be working on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and during the holidays?
Healthcare workers, military and safety officers, food service staff, pastors and social workers—how will we bring them to the manger, recognize and mention their efforts and concerns?
I think of our trash collectors. Because their holiday tips often get stolen, we try to meet them in person during the holidays. It is an occasion to meet these folks who serve us in person, greet them and give them the gift of time and personal attention as well as a monetary thanks.
There are the travelers too—the refugees, the immigrants among us. Bethlehem was full of travelers (who packed out the inn) on the night of Jesus’ birth. People who are in transition—between countries, residences, jobs, marriages, identities. Will they find a place at the manger?
For some, of course, Christmas is a painful time. A pastor friend has a Christmas party each year. The event closes with the lighting of the fourth Advent candle by a person who has been suffering or is in trouble, someone who needs the support of the community but can be easily overlooked in the hoopla of the holiday.
Bringing Jesus into the World
The “war on Christmas” seems to me a grumpy conspiracy theory. Serious people know that bringing Jesus into the world, as Mary and Joseph and the midwives did is, rather, a privilege of each day. It began with the process of Mary’s very real labor—and with the midwives’ skill in coaching the mother and delivering a baby. Bringing Jesus into the world is a labor of love, a dynamic process that requires intention and expertise.
Each year as we celebrate the birth of Jesus we have another opportunity to bring Jesus into the world without all the baggage of the past. The question is—will we have the courage and intention to do it?
The months and years of COVID-19 have forced us to change many of our traditions. Babies do that too. They upend our priorities—an understatement, for sure! What if we looked at the manger that way each year? Time to bring Jesus into the world.
Rather than allowing Mary and Joseph to do all the work, we become midwives at the manger, each and every year, partners with God in bringing hope, peace, and the possibility of salvation and justice into the world.
The real miracle of Jesus’ birth, the in-breaking of God into the world, is how each of us takes the baby in our arms and allows transformation to begin anew.
There will be different calls on our lives each year and each decade, for that matter—no shortage of tasks for preachers, pastors, teachers, prophets, organizers, chaplains, caregivers, communicators, saints all.
Sometimes we really will need to shift our emphasis, our priorities, our direction. We may have baggage from the year to shed. Advent gives us that time—to get ready.
But now, it’s that time again. There is a baby to be born—and a world that needs saving. Gather round, and then, go!
Laura Alden is a writer and a member of First Baptist Church, Pottstown, Pennsylvania. She served as publisher of Judson Press from 2003 to 2021.