Monday, November 30, 2009

Away in a manger

We had a fun little family night this evening. 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.
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.


Sarah said...

I have thought about those things before and find it very interesting how it is often portrayed. I have given birth to three children and only on the last one was I up and moving during the labor and it was by far my best experience and easiest birth and recovery. Much better then with pain meds or epidurals and flat on my back! There is a reason why women do so much better when they are allowed, even encouraged, to move around during labor. I am hoping to be able to help my friend get through the birth of her first baby, naturally, in a couple of months and will then decide if becoming a doula is truly what I would like to do. I hope I can help advocate for what she desires more than anything.

Fig said...

Ha, you yelled at La Virgin.

Rixa said...

Yeah, I made the same comment about her being on her back. I mean it only takes a teeny bit of effort, when you're researching the setup for the film, to find out that women don't choose to labor and birth on their backs!

Heatherlady said...

Great thoughts in this post. I love thinking about Mary being in labor with Jesus. My son was born a few days before Christmas and I felt such a connection to Mary (even though I know Christ wasn't really born in December). Can you imagine in Mary had Christ in a hospital with an epidural! It just wouldn't quite be the same. There is something so beautiful about the whole birth process and when I think about Mary and Jesus I remember that it IS a sacred experience and that each child deserves to come into the world like Christ did.

Diana J. said...

Great thoughts! I have come to similar conclusions. A friend of mine said that she said exactly the same thing to her husband while watching a nativity scene here in Mesa at the LDS temple - "Mary wouldn't have given birth on her back!" Sheesh! :)

Sweetpea said...

I love your vision!

Mother Earth said...

Great post. I yell at my TV all the time.

Sarah H said...

We watched "The Nativity" the other night. Have you seen it? (The full length film that came out a year or two ago). I thought it was excellent. I loved the birthing scene with Elizabeth. SHe was surrounded by women and moved a lot. They even had a rope suspended from the ceiling for her to pull on. I didn't like Mary's birth scene as much. For one, the labor came on super fast, which isn't likely. Also, only Joseph is there and he delivered the baby, which as you pointed out is quite unlikely. ANd she was on her back/semi sitting.

I do love the idea that Christmas is about mothers and birth as well as Jesus.
Great post!

missy. said...

Thanks for this! I've been thinking about this a lot this Christmas--about how much our representations of Christ's birth are colored by our own cultural norms surrounding birth and childrearing. For instance, in the song "Away in a Manger"--"no crib for a bed?" Did babies in that place/time period even sleep in cribs, or was cosleeping the norm?

I really love nativity scenes where Mary is holding the Baby--they just seems so much more true and real to me than the ones where the Baby is laying alone in the manger. Maybe it's because I recently had a baby myself, but my heart rises up in me when I see images of Mary holding and nursing. I'd be interested to explore which cultures are more likely to show Mary holding the Baby, and which ones are more likely to show them separated. I think different cultures' modes of representation of Christ's birth provide some really rich material for study, and I'm hoping to find time to learn more about this.

Robyn said...

After knowing what I now know about birth the words, "and she brought forth her firstborn son," have really stuck out to me. It sounds to me like she was the one bringing forth life. She may not have had the assistance of other women, I don't know, but knowing that she may have been shunned by family/midwives because of the circumstances of her pregnancy says something to why Joseph may have been there, knowing he did not want to abandon her in her moment of need. I'm not sure. The scriptures certainly do not say but I agree that she was probably not on her back! Who knows, her labor may have been quick, I certainly have had one super fast, 90 min, and only time for my husband to make it. It was a very powerful experience that connected me to the Savior in a way I had never experienced before.