Yesterday Christians celebrated Jesus’ birth. Recently, I read a reflection that got me thinking about childbirth. So, I thought I would begin the Christmastide season by reflecting on the gifts and dangers of childbirth.
Anyone who has been responsible for a child knows that childbirth heralds massive changes in the lives of all concerned. Giving birth not only threatens the health of the mother and child, but also transforms the way of life to which the parents have become accustomed.
The angel Gabriel didn’t talk about that, of course, when he came to visit Mary (I’ll have more to say on his message next week). The biblical account focuses on her willingness to say yes and on what Jesus will mean for his people, but not on what a difference it will make in Mary’s body and soul to become pregnant and give birth.
Modern scholars are combing through the ancient sources we do have to get a sense of what childbirth was like for women in Mary’s time. The truth of high infant mortality rates is illuminated in the fact that Roman mourning trends prescribed no formal process for observing the death of children under one year old. A study of Palestinian burials reveals much higher death rates for both infants and females of childbearing age.
What do you think went through Mary’s mind while she was giving birth to Jesus? What might she have thought, and screamed, and wondered and worried about?
Also, while we focus on sweet baby Jesus being laid in a manger (theoretically in the spot in Bethlehem pictured above), where did Mary lie after her labor was over? Who helped her clean herself, and recover, and stay warm and get rehydrated—and was any of that important in that day and time? We make assumptions of what we would do to stave off infection after giving birth in a filthy stable, but such concepts would have been unknown to Mary.
In fact, I would venture to say that part of the miracle of Jesus’ birth is that both he and Mary survived it. As you continue to celebrate Christmastide (I hope!) in the days ahead, I invite you to pray for women today who give birth in less-than-perfect conditions (in fact, US maternal mortality statistics are horrible) and learn what can be done to improve childbirth here and now.