A More Accurate Nativity Scene
I like this painting. It reminds me of a rather typical home birth scenario: we have the mother, no doubt exhausted, resting on a crimson mat (these were the days before blue chux pads, after all), while the midwife examines the new born, and her maidservant (literally her doula) cleans up, and draws water for either cleaning up the mother, or bathing the newborn, or something of that nature. The father looks on, perhaps in shock, disbelief, or awe at the miracle that has just taken place.
While the canonized Bible is silent about the exact details regarding the birth of Jesus, there are early Christian writings and lore that speak of two women (sometimes referred to by the names Salome and Sarah) being the first people (other than Mary) to witness the infant Jesus. This tradition was carried up through both the Western and Eastern Churches, as there are pieces like this painted by both Orthodox and Italian artists, even into the early Renaissance period. This painting is very accurate, when put in the cultural context of the birth of Jesus.
Birth was an event that was restricted to women. Unlike many modern renditions of the Nativity, Joseph would not have delivered Jesus, and was most likely not even present to witness it. Mary is cleaned up and resting, while the women attend to the details of the birth process. Joseph keeps to the side, and likely just entered the room. He would not have been present for the delivery of the afterbirth, and would have waited outside until his betrothed was all tidied up. According to Hebrew tradition, Mary would have been regarded as unclean, due to the fact that she was bleeding. Joseph was forbidden to even touch her.
Whether Mary laboured in the presence of a midwife, or whether the midwife arrived just moments too late, is a debated issue among scholars of early Christian writings. One can only imagine the strength that Mary had as young teen to be labouring unsupported as Joseph frantically sought out a midwife at night in a city that was not their home – this after enduring a donkey ride of several days to travel there. The face of a wise woman would have been very comforting as she groaned and swayed through her labour. I’m sure that the presence of other women either at or immediately after the birth, would have been much more valuable to Mary than any amount of gold, frankincense, or myrrh.
So forget the shepherds. Forget the Magi. It was the birth attendants who were so blessed as to be the first witnesses to the life of Jesus. It really is a story of redemption, as women would have fallen even farther down than shepherds on the social scale. However, women were given the honour that night – not for their wealth or social standing – but for their strong hands, their strong presence, and their strong faith in the ability of a teenage girl to give birth. This is what I will remember every time I drive past a Nativity display.
So whether you observe the holidays by gazing at a tree, a log, a menorah, a wreath, the fireplace channel, or a suckling newborn, may you find joy and peace (salome) this holiday season.
- Jill and Paul Colpitts