This past week I was struck by two comments which have been playing together in my mind. The first was a question in an article. “Was there a midwife at the Nativity?”
We usually imagine the birth of Jesus happening in a cold barn or cave, with Joseph delivering the baby. They were alone until the shepherds showed up. But scholarship and other traditions declare that this traditional image is likely to be wrong.
Until the Renaissance, there was often a midwife and her assistant – called a doula -- in pictures of the birth of Jesus. The midwife often held the baby and the doula did the cleanup of both Mary and the bedding.
Recently, there has been a fair amount of discussion of the meaning of the Greek word translated into English as “inn”. Later in Luke, the word katalumati refers to the upper room (or guest room) where Jesus and the disciples shared his last supper. Hospitality is an integral part of the ancient Israeli culture. So, Joseph’s family definitely would have made room for them somewhere, even if the guest room was not available.
Of course there was a midwife at the birth. When the mamas and aunties saw Mary, they would have immediately sent for the local midwife. Mary herself would have little experience of the birth process, although she probably was with Elizabeth when John the Baptist was born.
In addition, it is unlikely that Joseph was with Mary until after everything was cleaned up. As a good Jew he would not have wanted to come into contact with Mary while she was ritually unclean.
Now, we can forgive Luke for omitting this detail, since as a man, he would have not known the details, and he would not have considered the presence of other women important to the story. But women know, and we are delighted to think of the midwife and doula as the first witnesses to the birth of Jesus.
Did they know this was no ordinary birth? Perhaps not at the moment. But the instant they heard from the shepherds that they had seen the savior, a baby, they would have put the pieces together and known that they helped birth this special child. Or … some early artwork shows the midwives adoring the baby who glows with holy light.
Here is where the second comment I have been pondering comes in. It’s a couple paragraphs from Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon from 1543.
“And as they approached Bethlehem, Joseph was saying, “Oh, it will be all right. Soon we’ll be among relatives and we can borrow everything.” A fine idea that was!
Her time came as they were drawing near, and Joseph sought room for them in the inn. But there was no room in the inn. Of course there was! There was all the room in the inn, but nobody would give up a room! Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem; you should’ve been burned with brimstone!
And don’t you people in this congregation think you’d have done any better if you were there. I can just hear you say, “Oh, we would have loved to take care of the Baby Jesus. We would have washed his diapers.” No you wouldn’t! If you’d been there you wouldn’t have done a bit better, and if you think you would, why don’t you do it for your neighbor in your midst, who is Christ among you?”
We all like to think we would have listened to the angels and gone to worship this baby as God’s Son and our Savior. We are sure we would have believed to the shepherds. We know we would have believed the whispers of the midwives.
But in truth, most of us would have been skeptical. We would have laughed and said, “Yeah, sure. God’s gonna come to us as the child of a poor couple from Galilee.” So, yes, some of us would have believed, but many of us would not have. That’s ok. It’s human nature and God knows us well.
… You and I have not literally witnessed the birth, the angels, or the shepherds. We did not walk the Holy Lands with Jesus. We were not there at the cross or at the resurrection. But we have witnessed God’s activity in our lives and the lives of those we know. We are the witnesses Jesus has in the world today.
As witnesses to the goodness of God, we are God’s hands and feet and mouths. It is through us that the babies born into needy families are cared for with food and diapers and clothing. It is through us and people like us that the hungry are fed, the homeless find shelter, and those who are labeled as “different” are made welcome. We are the witnesses who are called to tell the stories now. If no one told the stories of Jesus to us, we would not know about him today.
Luke tells us that the Shepherds left the little family and went out to tell the world the good news of the birth of the savior, the messiah. This is why I like to end Christmas Eve worship with the lights bright and a reminder that it’s up to us to be like the shepherds and go tell the good news to all who will listen, that Jesus Christ is born. Amen