It’s late at night on Christmas Eve. We’ve cleaned up after dinner with extended family, and the rest of the household has gone to bed. In the silence, my thoughts turn to Mary, giving birth in the stable. After I became a mother, I felt bothered by traditional nativity sets showing Mary kneeling before the manger in which the baby is sleeping. Years ago at an exhibit of crèche sets from many countries, I was deeply moved by one (from the Philippines, I think) in which Mary lay on a mat with the baby Jesus next to her. That visual evocation of actual human birth sparked my imagination; suddenly I could envision the presence of women from the village there in the stable, perhaps the innkeeper’s wife and her friends or kin, one or more of them likely a midwife. I could see the “classic pose” I knew so well from my own birthing and from researching; surely women supported Mary from behind, or maybe someone brought a birthing chair or some kind of stool and someone else squatted in front of her to catch the baby.
In remarkable contrast to traditional crèche sets displayed at Christmas, Janet McKenzie’s painting “Mary with the Midwives” evokes the sensation of giving birth most profoundly. Gazing at it, you can almost hear Mary groaning through a contraction, clasping her belly. This painting was commissioned by Barbara Marian of Illinois as the second of three images that form the basis of The Nativity Project, an initiative by Marian to encourage reflection on the role of women in Jesus’ birth and ministry.
In an essay on the “Mary with the Midwives” painting, contained in a book called Holiness & the feminine Spirit,” Barbara Marian includes the story of Jesus’ birth contained in the Qur’an, which like McKenzie’s painting strikingly evokes the physicality of giving birth. The Qur’an depicts Mary laboring alone in “a far-off place” where she grips a tree, crying out.
“And when the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree, she exclaimed, ‘Oh, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!’ Thereupon a voice called out to her from beneath that palm-tree: ‘Grieve not! Thy Sustainer has provided a rivulet running beneath thee; and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee. Eat then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened! ‘“ (Surah 19, 22-25)
If you’ve ever given birth or been present at one, Mary’s lament here rings true. I’m particularly taken with the image of the tree’s stability contrasting with the unceasing contractions. I imagine her clinging to it, like an island of safety amidst a storm. Commonly, later in labor women feel ready to give up. But God hears her and responds in a most practical, useful manner, giving water to drink and refresh with, as well as figs to eat for a quick rise in blood sugar to make it through the rest of labor and push the baby out. Marian says that God is Mary’s midwife!