The Forgotten Women of the Nativity
Last month, I unpacked my nativity set with my toddler son, handling the smooth olivewood figures carved in Bethlehem for purchase by eager Christian tourists. We named the figures as we put them in the tableau on top of the piano and then stood back to admire the scene. Mary was surrounded by five men, but her gaze took in only her baby.
The overwhelming male-ness of the nativity scene felt jarring. For millennia and across many cultures, including in the days of Jesus, birth was an exclusively female event: a laboring woman was attended by midwives and female family members. Only after the groans of productive agony had ceased and the blood and afterbirth were cleaned up were men permitted to enter. There is little reason to suppose Jesus’ birth was any different.
One of the many problems with men being in charge of written and oral histories through the centuries is that not only do women and their lives and contributions get erased, but that things that are unique to the female experience don’t get recorded, whether because they are viewed as distasteful, as inconsequential, or because men are ignorant of them. Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ birth in a sentence or less, glossing over the messy and vital work of women with a euphemistic, “and she brought forth her first born son.”
It has been undisputedly established that women have been and continue to be written out of history, their achievements attributed to men, their contributions minimized or forgotten altogether. When women are remembered by history, they are often written as hypersexualized beings, their sexuality their most defining feature. It is as if men are unable to conceive of women as people like themselves, so their femaleness, regardless of their other attributes, becomes the most salient thing about them in the historical record.
I’m convinced that the only reason Mary hasn’t been written out of the nativity story is because it wasn’t possible to give Jesus’ origin story without mentioning her. But like many of the women history has recorded before and after her, Mary’s sexuality became a fixation for the male historians who wrote about her. It was not enough that she gave birth to Jesus; it had to be a virgin birth. And it was not enough that she was a virgin when she conceived Jesus; she had to remain celibate for the rest of her life. In a historical tradition where women are stereotyped as either madonna or whore or crone, Mary was the original and ultimate Madonna.
I’ve always felt the almost tangible lack of women in the scriptures, in the temple, in religious and secular histories alike. I try to peel away the layers of the “official” story of the birth of Christ that have been lacquered onto our cultural consciousness for two thousand years to find the empty spaces where women must have been: the Bethlehem midwife who, with her assistants, attended to Mary even though Mary was poor and unlikely to be able to pay; the women who lived in the house whose stable housed the holy family; the women in Mary’s and Joseph’s extended families who taught Mary the art of breastfeeding and caring for her infant; the wives and daughters of the shepherds and wisemen who cared for home and hearth while their husbands pilgrimaged to see the foretold Messiah.
If angels appeared to shepherds, and if the wise men were inspired to seek out Jesus, surely there were also women who took part in the adoration. We don’t have a record of angels appearing to women to tell them about the birth, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. More likely, though, I imagine that women were led to the Christ child through the same network that connects women in communities all over the world, that of communicated need spread quietly from woman to woman that we use to help each other to this day. Surely there were warm meals, fresh linens and blankets delivered to the new mother by women who heard of her situation. Surely these women were able to hear Mary tell her birth story, to hold and adore the baby. And, surely, their gifts were every bit as needed and appreciated as gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
My nativity set is beautiful and meaningful to me, and I recognize the power in the traditional narrative. But I wish I had another nativity set to place beside it, one with a calm and competent midwife tending to Mary, with the woman of the house making the space as hospitable as she could, with neighbors bringing gifts of bread and cloths and bedding, all paying homage to the child and his mother in the unassuming and practical way women have cared for each other through the ages.