Birth in the Time of Jesus
Since becoming a midwife, I have on Christmas Eve, watched my thoughts slip into a wondering place about Mary and the birth of Jesus. In the crèche that has been passed down from generation to generation, in our family, Mary and Joseph are sitting alone with some animals and an angel. There is no sign of family, friends or neighbors. There is no midwife. My nativity scene has grown, over the years, to include many babies and many mothers, fathers, angels and animals. There are crèches made in Haiti, Guatemala, Ecuador and the tribes of our first people. There is a play mobile crèche and animals made from clay and wood. It is now a whole village of people gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Small dolls, smurfs and action figures have found a place there as well. All are welcome.
They face one direction; moving towards a common light, no matter their background or nationality. If there should be a problem, there are many people to go for help or offer assistance. The baby has been born, however, and all seems to have gone well. There are gifts of food, clean water and a community that cares about its children. This is the crèche I create on these cold, winter days. It is the only crèche my children and grandchildren have ever known.
I have learned a great deal about birth from the women and midwives of Haiti, Vietnam and Cambodia as well as from the archaeologists and scholars who have studied life in the time Mary would have given birth to Jesus. I also know that no two people ever tell a birth story in the same way; that the midwife, the father, the mother and friends and family all have different perspectives on one common event. This is the way of stories.
The women, who gave birth in the area of Judea, were part of small Jewish communities who were under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was vast and each part of the Empire was governed by a local administrator. The Jewish community was guided by rabbis and the temple in Jerusalem. They were warm, costal communities nested into the dry, rocky shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The women were born, grew up, and celebrated the coming of adulthood, marriage and birth within the laws of their faith. A young woman, giving birth, would be part of a strong community made up of family, friends and neighbors. She would have known since early childhood, the activities surrounding birth and the care of the newborn. Her own first menarche would have been celebrated and a husband carefully selected by her family and the community. Perhaps she had helped with the birth of a sister, a mother or a cousin; the way women naturally gather to support a woman and family having a baby.
Much of what we know about birth, at this time, is from archaeology and also from two authors; Pliny the Elder and Soranus. Soranus wrote a book about midwives in the 2nd century AD. From his book, Gynaecolgy, we read his description of a good midwife:
(3) ... A suitable person ... must be literate in order to be able to comprehend the art through theory too: she must have her wits about her so that she may easily follow what is said and what is happening: she must have a good memory to retain the imparted instructions (for knowledge arises from memory of what has been grasped). She must love work in order to persevere through all vicissitudes (for a woman who wishes to acquire such vast knowledge needs manly patience). She must be respectable since people will have to trust their household and the secrets of their lives to her and because to women of bad character the semblance of medical instruction is a cover for evil scheming. She must not be handicapped as regards her senses since there are things which she must see, answers which she must hear when questioning, and objects which she must grasp by her sense of touch. She needs sound limbs so as not to be handicapped in the performances of her work and she must be robust, for she takes a double task upon herself during the hardship of her professional visits. Long and slim fingers and short nails are necessary to touch a deep lying inflammation without causing too much pain. This skill, however, can also be acquired through zealous endeavour and practice in her work ...
(4) ... We call a person the best midwife if she is trained in all branches of therapy (for some cases must be treated by diet, others by surgery, while still others must be cured by drugs); if she is moreover able to prescribe hygienic regulations for her patients, to observe the general and the individual features of the case, and from this to find out what is expedient, not from the causes or from the repeated observations of what usually occurs or something of the kind. Now to go into detail: she will not change her methods when the symptoms change, but will give her advice in accordance with the course of the disease: she will be unperturbed, unafraid in danger, able to state clearly the reasons for her measures, she will bring reassurance to her patients, and be sympathetic. And it is not absolutely essential for her to have borne children, as some people contend, in order that she may sympathise with the mother, because of her experience with pain; for [to have sympathy] is not more characteristic of a person who has given birth to a child. She must be robust on account of her duties but not necessarily young as some people maintain, for sometimes young persons are weak whereas on the contrary older persons may be robust. She will be well disciplined and always sober, since it is uncertain when she may be summoned to those in danger. She will have a quiet disposition, for she will have to share many secrets of life. She must not be greedy for money, lest she give an abortive wickedly for payment; she will be free from superstition so as not to overlook salutary measures on account of a dream or omen or some customary rite or vulgar superstition. She must also keep her hands soft, abstaining from such wool-working as may make them hard, and she must acquire softness by means of ointments if it is not present naturally. Such persons will be the best midwives.
In Soranus’s book he describes the supplies a midwife should bring to a birth. They include the following:
olive oil [clean, not previously used in cooking], warm water, warm fomentations [ointments applied to the body], soft sea sponges, pieces of wool, bandages [to swaddle the infant], a pillow [on which to which to place the infant], things to smell [pennyroral, dirt, barley groats, apples, quinces, lemons, melons, cucumbers; these were used as we use spirits of ammonia to revive someone who has fainted], a midwife's stool or chair [this was the property of the midwife; she brought it with her to the home where the delivery was to take place], two beds [a hard one for use during labor and a soft one for rest after delivery], and a proper room [of medium size and moderate temperature]. (38)
If possible a midwife should also, he writes, bring a birthing chair but if this was not available a woman should sit on the laps of two women and be supported in this way. They did not give birth on their back. There is also an indication that sometimes a hole was dug for a woman to squat over with brightly painted birth bricks for her feet. In all situations, the laboring woman was held up, encouraged and supported by other women with the midwife sitting in front of her to catch the baby. Soranus recommends that the midwife cover her hands with cloth, as the baby is quite slippery.
A woman, giving birth in the time of Jesus, would have lived in a small stone house with perhaps one or two rooms. Most families had a room upstairs for living and a room below for the animals. This is how it was in Cambodia and Vietnam. Animals were kept close to the family so they could be easily watched and cared for. I remember, this Christmas season, the women who rested, after birth, on platforms, next to cows and so now the image of a mother and baby in a place of animals comes with it, an image of mothers laughing and smiling as the cows lazily chew their cud on a warm afternoon. In the place where Mary gave birth, the animals might have been in a cave with the house on top.
Each community would have had a mikveh; a pool for women to wash themselves in after they give birth or during their monthly bleeding. After the birth, a woman would have gone and submerged herself in fresh rainwater. For those of who have given birth, having a pool deep enough to completely submerge ourselves in after birth, sounds peaceful and soothing, after the hard work of birth. A wealthy family might own their won pool but we might imagine that in a middle class family this would have been shared by extended family and would have been sued by the mother before when she bathed there with her menarche.
When she returned to her house, the baby would have been washed in salt water or wine and rubbed with olive oil. The baby would have been wrapped in pieces of linen with the arms and legs straight. The baby was swaddled as we all swaddle babies but this was also thought to help the baby develop strong, straight arms and legs. Room was left free for the baby to go the bathroom. There were no diapers. The baby was kept close to the mother at all times and she caught droppings in a small clay pot.
Her house most likely would have opened onto a shared courtyard that was shared by other small houses. Sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmothers would have ben close by to help with the recommended 40 days of rest for mother and baby. At 40 days, a family would travel to the temple in Jeruselum to present the baby to the community. This is sometimes known as “Churching”the baby. The baby would have been circumcised, according to Jewish custom, at eight days of age.
A baby was typically breastfed for 3 years and a special celebration was planned for the weaning of a baby. Other than the natural spacing offered by early, exclusive breastfeeding, a woman of this time would give birth to many babies following the customs of her community.
When I reflect on the most familiar forms of the nativity scene I think of many things.
I consider the image of a woman isolated from her community and from midwives; isolated from the unique religious and cultural customs of her life. A woman who had no one to support her. Her visitors are all men; shepherds and wise men and not women bringing food and wise council. I think about hospitals all over the world in which women are forced to choose between their cultural traditions and safe birth; how the two often fail to come together. I see the women in Haiti and Vietnam in a hospital bed, laboring all alone, flat on their back. And so I build a new nativity in which women are always in the presence of caring friends and family; supported on either side by women, with a skilled midwife there beside her.
The other image is the image of “no room at the inn. “ These words are spoken at Christmas all over the world. These words bring to mind the fact that hundreds of thousands of women each day, give birth without adequate prenatal care, clean water, a skilled midwife and emergency referral services.
I draw, in my mind, a crèche in which all these things are provided for all women; loving culturally appropriate practices, skilled midwives, emergency resources and the care of an extended community that provides a peaceful, equitable world for her child to be raised in.
I can never know, this Christmas morning, what Mary’s birth was like. But based on what we know about Jewish law and the customs of her day, I build a crèche that includes midwives and the support of women in her community. I can see that animals within the home were a normal part of life both now and then.
I also think of what it means to follow, not just the Star of Bethlehem, but to follow the deep inner light that exists within all humanity. I consider the simple message, offered by a then grown up Jesus; the one that asked us to love one another as he loved us.
This message inspired and gave strength to many who strove make the world a better place for each baby born. The church, named in this one baby’s honor, would struggle to understand these words as they saw the church as a place of exclusive membership that a brown skinned Mary, living as an oppressed religious minority, would have had difficulty recognizing.
And so on Christmas Eve, with my granddaughter beside me, I raise a candle and say a prayer for all the mothers and babies of the world. I pray for the healing and compassion and generosity that will make each child’s life safe and celebrated.