This story doesn’t have a beginning. I lost it. Maybe you can help me find it.

I thought it began at the post office, a few Decembers ago. I’m a stodgy traditionalist who still buys the “religious” Christmas postage stamps. No Santa or snowflakes or winter berries for me. Almost always the stamp I buy carries some Renaissance rendition of Mary and Jesus. I examine it closely, read the artist’s name, realize I’ve never heard of him (and they are almost always hims) and then think to myself “What is Madonna’s last name, again?” (Ciccone. Lady Gaga’s is Germanotta.) Giorgione, Bellini, Vivarini, Luini, Sassoferrato, Bacchiacca

Here’s where I seem to go off the tracks.

I was quite certain I had purchased stamps in 2018, maybe ’17 or ’16, that had a second woman, in addition to Mary, on them. I presumed the other woman was Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman. But after a little googling around, I discovered, instead, she was a midwife — a woman who assisted at Mary’s delivery of Jesus.

Now retracing my story, I find no postage such stamp. Philatelists, please help — as well as you art historians, those who know your Carracci from your Tiepolo, and don’t instead think of that other Madonna.

Where — fairly recently and in a fairly accessible place — might an amateur like me have stumbled on a depiction of Mary and Jesus with a midwife? Please help. Seriously.

Watanabe’s Nativity

Anyway, I’m now on the lookout for midwives in nativity scenes. And I find them with some frequency. I believe a print we’ve had for years by Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe has a couple of midwives that I’d never noticed before. I’m not sure who or what I thought. Just some random women? Neighbors? Villagers?

Here we can go two ways.

Re-reading Luke 2

One way is to recognize it is likely that Mary actually was assisted by a midwife. It was common in those days. We’ve already, only by inference, squeezed an innkeeper, a stable, cows, donkeys, and camels into the story. Why not a midwife? However, to squeeze a midwife into the birth narratives of Jesus may mean dispensing with our version of Mary and Joseph being alone, neglected, scrambling at the last minute.

Re-read the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, and you will see it is just as easy to read that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem days or weeks before the birth. They could have been staying with relatives whose guest room/inn was already occupied. There was, however, some room for the young couple on the ground floor — think stalls, granary, storeroom — where the manger would be. It’s not much of a reach to think that Mary’s aunt or Joseph’s cousin would arrange for a midwife to help deliver a young woman’s first child. Such a reading undoes a lot of our fond assumptions. I’m not claiming this is the case, but only that it is just as good a reading as the version we’ve constructed over the centuries.

Salome and another midwife bathing newborn Jesus

A second century document called the “Gospel of James” even talks of an unnamed midwife and Salome, more-or-less her assistant. In this story, Salome is to Christmas what Mary Magdalene is to Easter, the first to encounter and recognize Christ, and then to profess faith in him. Images of Salome bathing the newborn Jesus foreshadow his baptism.

There’s certainly no need to put much stock in a second century apocryphal gospel. I don’t. And neither is my aim to radically deconstruct our traditional view of Jesus’s birth. All of this is conjecture. Still, start looking, and you may find Salome and the other midwife in some depictions of the nativity.

Or Go the Midrash Route

The second option is simply to embroider on the Christmas story and freely to acknowledge that’s what we’re doing.

This fall, a group at our church read Rachel Held Evans’ final book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. One of the most memorable parts of the book is Evans’ encouragement for Christians to learn to do midrash.

Midrash is not a lesser case of shingles. It is a Jewish tool of scriptural interpretation that constructs imaginary side stories or back stories to familiar biblical tales. Evans compares it to fan-fiction, prequels, and sequels. (BTW, some of the midrash Evans does in the book is alone worth the book’s purchase price.)

As a seminary-trained Protestant, I’ve always been instructed to “stick to the text,” don’t psychologize, don’t extrapolate. Of course, there are good reasons for this. But it can also produce a stern and sterile reading. Midrash presumes that you love the story. You love it enough to play with it. A fictional prequel, a side story, adding a character will illumine some sublimity in the story itself.

The Christmas story is the one New Testament story we’ve given ourselves permission to do midrash on — the aforementioned innkeeper, stable, cow, camels, plus things like names for the magi, stories of Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem, tales of the magi’s journey, and the more fanciful accounts of the barnyard animals kneeling, warming the child with their breath, and even speaking on that first Christmas.

Our Christmas midrash expresses our love for the story. We have cherished it and polished it. What if we did this to many other stories of Jesus? Would we lose the focus, go off on strange bizarre tangents? Possibly. Or might we come to love the stories more?

Call the Midwife

So let’s add a midwife, maybe two, to the story through midrash — we can even name her Salome — rather than asking us to unlearn our warm and treasured account of Christmas.

Putting a midwife in the Christmas story opens up all sorts of possibilities. It reminds me of a pastor colleague who said “I’m not a shepherd. There is only one Shepherd. I’m more like a sheepdog who runs around barking and nipping at heels.” Likewise, we are not Theotokos, Mary the mother of God, who brings Christ into the world.

But we can play the part of midwives. Others, more poetic than I, and probably especially women, may run much farther with this metaphor. Our task as midwives is to watch and witness and welcome. To help as we’re able. To be amazed and grateful. To rejoice. To believe. To find ourselves changed. To tell others the amazing story. Midwives certainly do more than this. But for now, that’s enough for me.

Merry Christmas!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

6 Comments

  • As usual, this is a wonderful piece. God bless you and the family this Christmas.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Yes, as usual, delightful. However . . . I haven’t read Rachel Held Evans’ book, but if that’s her full definition of Midrash, that’s unfair to Midrash. It is the definition popular among many Christians. But, if R T France and E Earle Ellis are right (and the latter is far from always right), Midrash was originally not some imaginary free-for-all, but had disciplined rules and patterns. Yes, those rules and patterns were stretched and even broken, as is the case with all of our rules and patterns. I am not contesting your point about imagination and the enrichment and expansion of our Biblical stories: Let a thousand flowers bloom! He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. Nor am I contesting your alternate reading of the events of the Nativity, which makes just as much sense as our traditional one. However, I still like Joseph serving as the Midwife, and if you take that away from me, there goes one of my sermons.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    No, Dan. Joseph was doing what all men were asked to do until very recent times – boiling water. This was a good piece, Steve – thanks. I got to study with Herbert O’Driscoll who did some marvelous things with “Christian midrash.” I like to believe it has had a positive effect on my preaching. Rachel Held Evans is (was) the daughter in law of one of our members and worshiped in the Millstone pews with us. She praised our service in a blog for its inclusiveness. leadership of women, sound biblical preaching (with social justice) and liturgy.
    No time left for this year, but I will embark on a similar quest next year, Steve, for those midwives!

  • Jeff says:

    A delightful read. I enjoyed your ideas and will have to save this post for another Christmas season (they seem to come closer and closer together as I get older). Oh, I also laughed at the quip about midrash not being a mild for of the shingles. I may have to borrow that line, too.

  • Thanks. These thoughts help us to rescue the Christmas story from the genre of fairy tale and into the genre of history. These events really happened, and like all historical events, there were thousands of details that are not related in the official narrative.

  • James Brumm says:

    Lovely reflection, Steve, and good prodding. I have made much in recent years of the idea that, of all the people God could have chosen as parents for Jesus–indeed, all the Josephs and Marys–God chose the two who didn’t think to make a reservation someplace when they knew they were traveling late in her pregnancy. You’re interpretation redeems them a bit. On the other hand, it seems to me that the idea that a midwife was summoned doesn’t mean it wasn’t all last-minute and rushed; midwives, like obstetricians, like pastors, are used to dropping everything, even a house full of guests, to go tend to someone in need at an inconvenient time. There is also, I think, a nice sermon for Daniel in the idea that Joseph, reduced to go-fer and stage manager of this event, finally had a chance to shine, to make a real difference for his family and his God, and somebody sidelines him by calling in a professional.

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