Christmas Eve (A): ‘Twas the Night Before Birthing
By: Emily S. Kahm
Lately, I’ve taken up an interest in birthing shows, especially British series like “One Born Every Minute.” Whether it’s an interest borne out of the increasingly serious conversations I’m having with my spouse about when will be a good time to start a family, or just the old-fashioned curiosity that has spawned many a reality show, there’s something gripping about these hour-long ventures into the lives of women in their final moments of pregnancy and first moments of new motherhood. You get a glimpse into the frustration of labor, which seems to oscillate between agonizing pain and extreme boredom. You see how unpredictable this supposedly straightforward method of reproduction really is, and taste the terror of possible loss and injury. You see strange family dynamics play out around a hospital bed. I’m always trying to predict how a woman will cope with labor, and I’m usually wrong. They all find their paths through the exhausting ordeal somehow, but I’m taken aback—nearly every time—by how quickly it all ends. It’s jarring. One moment is loud and frenetic and pain-filled, and then in half a second, someone new is here and the chaos seems, somehow, very long ago.
When I read this Nativity story, I find myself wondering how Mary coped with her labor on the road, far from home, perhaps without midwives or older women in attendance to accompany her through the intensely painful experience. We have a sense of her in the Gospel of Luke as both curious and brave, able to converse with angels and happy to take a long trip to see her older cousin. We don’t talk about it much, but in Catholic tradition, Mary is usually said to be 14 or 15 years old at the birth of Jesus—hardly a worldly age, even if she had had a diverse or cosmopolitan upbringing. I wonder if she cried. I wonder if she shrieked obscenities at her spouse while she labored to create the Holy Family. I wonder if she was also a bit shocked, somehow, when it was all over and she got to meet this “someone new” she had heard so much about from divine sources.
In that perhaps irreverent spirit, the loveliest thing about this Nativity story, I find, is how un-miraculous all of the miracles are. Mary and Joseph were on a truly unromantic trip that they apparently couldn’t put off despite the awful timing. Once Jesus was born, I envision the two of them tiredly improvising with a manger and some spare cloth, seeking the chance to rest before their newborn inevitably begins his new routine of squalling every 3 or 4 hours to be fed. The angels don’t seem overly concerned with comforting the new parents and instead go tell the shepherds everything that’s going on so they can drop by. While the shepherds knew they were journeying to a holy place, I imagine that they experienced some of the familiar delight that I feel when I see a complete stranger with a newborn in tow—I feel a nearly irrepressible urge to offer congratulations and a casserole, hearkening back to a long human history of celebrating our continuation. Whether or not the shepherds got the full significance of the angelic message, at least they knew the everyday but life-changing joy of a family that has just remade itself. It’s a miracle they would know well, even if there usually weren’t so many angels. This story is especially precious to us because we not only know it as a beloved Bible story; we know this story because it happens all around us regularly, and because it never seems to get less exciting.
Luke is able to craft this Nativity story to reflect humble beginnings, a new age that begins in the same way as all of our lives began—with pain and blood and fear, but also with anticipation and joy. Especially as we commemorate Christmas with pageantry and the sweet delights of a favorite holiday, it’s helpful to go back to this simple, straightforward story and the utterly ordinary way that this part of salvation history begins. When we recall just how visceral and untidy birthing is, we start to see the foreshadowing of the cross in this comforting tale. Mary, our main character in the Lukan version, watches the shepherds come and go with tired and grateful eyes. She treasures in her heart the miracle of a safe childbirth and a new family of her own. And, very probably, she begins praying for the miracle of a full night’s sleep.
Emily S. Kahm is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver and teaches at Augustana College. Her research interests include sexuality education in Christian churches and young adults who were raised Catholic. She lives with her spouse and two rabbits in eastern Iowa.