December 29, 2010
Last week, my 5 month-old daughter made her theatrical debut as Baby Jesus in our church Christmas pageant. It was a precious happening because all of the other children, ages 3 and up, became serious and silent when they realized a real baby, and not a doll, was at the center of all the commotion. And Ellie – method actress that she is – slept soundly throughout the entire production.
I was Mary. As I sat there before the congregation in an itchy blue shawl with bobby pins pinching my scalp, I listened to the story of Jesus’ birth…or as I’ve learned to think of it: “Mary’s delivery.”
From the Bible’s Gospel according to Luke:
…God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…For no word from God will ever fail.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.
(Oh my! “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”?! Is that an archaic description of rape or what?! All that and she doesn’t even get to choose his name?!) This cannot possibly be accurate. (Smirk.) For starters, if we believe that Mary was indeed a virgin and then mysteriously conceived a child without having sex, it would take a lot more than a seven-sentence conversation to quell any doubts and fears she’d have about her immaculate conception. Luke doesn’t go on to tell us how Mary probably ran straight away to talk to her sisters, female cousins and friends, mother figures and others about her predicament. True to form, she would have analyzed the situation to death and tried to figure out what God Most High was thinking! Every woman would have nodded and smiled reassuringly, but inside thought to herself, “Yeah right…an angel told her that?! What a hussy!” And once the news leaked to Joseph, he and his posse of male relatives and friends would have accosted Mary until she named the father of her unborn as one other than the Lord so they could beat him to a pulp. This quiet acceptance is so…so…final century B.C.!
Additionally, I take issue with the whole virgin-conceives-the-living-god narrative, not unique to Christianity. The idea that sex – for women, at least – is dirty and cannot possibly result in a pure birth forms just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the gritty details we live in denial about – such as where and how the Holy baby comes out of the so-called virgin’s body - form the bulk. It’s easy to shrug off the biological impossibility of this conception. It’s much more difficult to accept our imperfections and our feeble humanity in the face of such grace. Not only is the baby superhuman, Mary must have been superhuman too. (Oh right – she was “highly favored.”)
More from Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
What kind of a birth story is that?! There’s more language in there about a census than there is about Mary’s experience. And what the fuck do Caesar Augustus, Quirin’i-us and David have to do with it?! The words “according to” in gospel according to… are really telling. History has been written primarily by men. And in Mary’s day, this experience of pregnancy and childbirth would have been witnessed by women and its story passed from mother to daughter in an oral tradition. Were there a Gospel according to Oprah, for instance, we might know more truths about the birth of Jesus.
As it is, when I was a child, I listened to this distorted nativity story with no incredulity whatsoever. Joseph brought Mary to Bethlehem on a donkey. He knocked on the door of the inn and was told that there was no room for them inside. So, they went to the stable where she (painlessly) gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Yeah…you try riding on a donkey when you’re nine months pregnant! And there really were no inns; just homes and travellers relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers. A stable? Fine; but note that Joseph would have had little to no knowledge of the female body. That means Mary was on her own. She had no midwife and no sisters to prop her up so that gravity could help her baby travel down and out. How did Joseph know to cut the umbilical cord? Was he put off by all of the blood and shit that comes with baby? And when Jesus had trouble latching to Mary’s breast, who helped her feed him?
Because history has traditionally ignored such details, we’ve lost much: the practice of midwifery has dwindled and even disappeared from certain parts of the world, and the knowledge that women are strong enough to give birth naturally has practically evaporated. And we take the authors’ word for it - or rather their lack of words - that Mary’s delivery was uneventful. There’s nothing about the actual birth of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew: instead, Matthew chooses to focus on how Joseph was able to forgive Mary for whoring about and conceiving a baby behind his back. John and Mark don’t mention the Nativity at all.
So that’s it! That’s all Mary gets. There’s no reverence for the anguish she must have felt – as every woman feels – in the uncertain moments before giving birth to her first baby. When I had my moment of “great doubt,” I was 9 centimeters dilated and just about to begin pushing. It was then that I asked for pain medication and was encouraged to continue without by my doula. Mary had the relief of no such science, and the assistance of no such saint.
This is the part where all the MRAs chime in: “But Joseph’s experience really was harrowing!” they whine. Sure it was. It must have been very difficult to accept your betrothed’s impossible explanation for how she became pregnant without you. But what would have been really harrowing was if Joseph had knocked down the door to the “inn” and demanded that somebody give his wife a bed…and some rags and water and loving care. That’s right: a hero Joseph would have shouted, “Let us the fuck in!” And when those three idiot “wise” men showed up, he would have told them what they could really do with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Seriously, I can just picture the look on exhausted Mary’s face as she endures what must have been the original, extraneous baby shower; but instead of sea of pink or blue crap, she found herself with useless luxury goods. “Uh, thanks for the gum resin…really. But did you bring me anything useful, like burp cloths or a bottle warmer?”)
As a Christian, I try to find meaning in biblical stories rather than focusing on the details. But when it comes to Mary, there are no details; so what can I learn from her story about mothering? According to these accounts of her, she meant nothing more to Christianity than her anatomy, which was the vessel in which Jesus came to Earth. I wish the authors had seen it fit to value and relay her experience so that we might learn how strong, rather than subordinate, women can be.
The Nativity should not be a catalyst for women-man hatred. Ahead of his time, and perhaps even ahead of ours, German theologian Meister Eckhart (circa 1300) wrote: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
I agree. Fuck anatomy! We could all use a little of Mary’s grace!