The Annunciation, photo by the author, taken at the Folk Art Museum, Kinsky Summer Palace, Prague, CK
I am not a Biblical scholar by any means, but isn’t it time to recognize Mary’s side of the story? I mean, an angel tells Mary she is going to have a very special baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and she responds in so many words, “Okay.” She wonders how it would be so, but she is reassured that it will all work out.
Jesus is born, his birth told but not described in Scriptures. Thousands of artists have captured in their paintings and sculptures a smiling and relaxed Mary holding her newborn. The scriptures were written by men, of course, for men in the early church to study, and so the feminine point of view was lost. In the book of Luke, Mary was “troubled” by the angel’s words. Men, are you for real? Is that it? What about the morning sickness? And the swollen feet? Mary was blessed among women, but she was human. And what about the pain? The Mother of God would not have just crouched down and pushed out a full term baby without extreme discomfort. I gave birth to two children. I know.
Courage is acting in the face of fear, and in my mind Mary had plenty to fear. She was poor, and if traveling alone with Joseph (according to the story), she wouldn’t have had the comfort of her mother and familiar village women to help her with the birth. Pregnant with her first child? That’s enough for many sleepless nights. Surrendering to God’s will takes courage, but courage is continually tested by human doubt and fear.
What was it like? A woman at the time of Jesus’ birth stood or squatted during labor, her back supported by trusted family and friends. Mary would also have had a midwife who applied oils for lubrication, used poultices to ease pain, and used sea sponges for gently bathing her body. The midwife would have also brought sweet and aromatic herbs such as penny royal and quince to revive the laboring mother. Joseph would not have helped with the delivery; it would have been unclean for him to touch any blood.
Mary is esteemed and even worshiped for her role in birth of our Savior. Full of grace, certainly. Interestingly, the Koran says more about Mary’s preparation than do the Scriptures. The Koran’s description of Mary’s childhood, overseen by Divine intervention, gives believability to Mary’s acquiescence to God’s plan. She was visited daily by angels , and she had frequent visions of God. While there are many theological issues that I am not prepared to argue, the Koran seems to support the notion that Mary was groomed for the job, so to speak.
There is more to the birth of Jesus than what we have been led to believe through Sunday School, carols, and sermons. No where in the Bible are we told that Jesus was born in a stable. There were no inns at the time like we think of them; the Jews were hospitable and opened their homes to those who needed refuge. Jesus was born and placed in a manger, a hay filled depression in the dirt floor, probably in the lower level of a guest house, maybe even a relative’s house, say Biblical archeologists. The lower level housed people as well as animals.
But the truth conveyed by the story of Jesus’ birth is not dependent upon whether Jesus was born in a stable or whether Mary was indeed a virgin. The story of the nativity is beautiful and enduring because it teaches us about humility and trust. The Son of God born into a poor family? Hmmm…a lesson in seeing God in the least of us. Surrendering to something we don’t understand so that the gift can be received? Reminds me of Lamaze coaching…don’t fight the pain, surrender to the pain, embrace it as something that will bring you love beyond anything you could have imagined.
How many times do we turn down gifts because of our own fears? Fear of not being in control, fear of losing ourselves. I hadn’t considered until recently how we sometimes need to give up something in order to receive.
This Christmas I’m not going to ponder the mysteries of a Virgin birth or worry about stables and mean innkeepers who turn away a pregnant woman. I’m going to ponder the gift of God on earth, in the form of a man, birthed by a very brave and faithful young woman named Mary. Mary, full of grace, who surrendered, perhaps with occasional bouts of fear and pain, to the gift of all gifts- God’s love Incarnate.
Resources for Pondering