As an obstetrician/gynecologist, I’ve helped thousands of women and their families bring new lives into the world. I’ve also traveled to the Middle East more than 20 times to teach maternal safety courses to doctors there. While there, I experienced first-hand some of the physical and cultural environments that gave rise to the three monotheistic religions of the world; the Jewish, Islamic and Christian religions all began in the Middle East.
I was raised as a Protestant Christian myself, and I had been taught to view Mary as a religious icon and a paragon of virtue and perfection. In the past, her story really didn’t speak to me. She was presented as so perfect that I couldn’t see how regular folks had any chance of following her example.
Doctors and teachers are expected to be aware of diversity and cultural issues. This is important if we are to connect with our patients and students. So, a few years ago, I bought an English translation of the Qur’an so I could better understand Islamic tradition. In the Qur’an, Jesus is a prophet, and Mary is the only woman mentioned by name. But before I summarize the Islamic story of Jesus’ birth, keep one thing in mind — Mary was an unwed pregnant woman, probably a teenager. Being an unwed pregnant woman two thousand years ago in the Middle East could get you killed (in fact, in some places it still can.)
The Islamic tradition for the birth of Jesus (Sura 19:22-31) goes something like this:
After the Angel Gabriel notified Mary of her conception, Mary was able to keep the pregnancy a secret throughout her gestation. When the pains of labor occurred, Mary went off to an isolated place, then, holding on to the trunk of a palm tree, she delivered her son alone without any help. As soon as she was able, she carried her baby back to her people. They were stunned! They said, “Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!”
Mary then pointed to her baby, and the newborn Jesus told the people that he was a servant of God and was also Allah’s prophet. The miracle of speech by a newborn baby convinced the people to enthusiastically welcome Mary and Jesus back into their community.
I was pretty surprised when I read those words. I had not expected to find such a strong woman in the Islamic tradition. There was no Joseph to take care of her, there wasn’t even a stable, and only a palm tree was available to support her. And that made me wonder — was there more to Mary than is captured by our traditional American interpretations? Was a strong woman hidden somewhere in the Christmas Story?
The Mary of the Christian tradition would have been a teenager since two thousand years ago women married at an early age. If she hadn’t been a teenager, possibly even a young teenager, she would have already been married. Although she was betrothed to Joseph, she was pregnant outside of marriage and so would have dealt with the worry of an unwed pregnancy before Joseph decided to go through with the wedding. And then near the time of her due date, she was uprooted from her family in Nazareth and taken to Bethlehem for the census. No female family members or friends were available to support her.
Now let’s think about that stable. Those Nativity scenes we recall — a wooden barn with lots of nice warm straw — are not historic. Wood was (and is) a precious commodity in the Middle East, much too valuable to use in barn construction. No, the stables of the Middle East two thousand years ago were caves. So Mary did not give birth in a nice warm barn, but rather in a cold damp cave, probably with sheep manure mixed into the mud of the floor.
While laboring in a cold damp smelly cave, Mary also had to fear for her life. The death rate for women who labor without modern obstetric care is about 1percent per pregnancy, and there is no mention in the New Testament of any labor attendant whatsoever. Mary probably knew of family members or women in Nazareth who had died in childbirth and had reason to be afraid.
Generally speaking, labor and delivery of a baby is a highly charged emotional event. In addition to severe pain, women experience a whole series of emotions, including but not limited to fear, excitement and anguish. The delivery itself usually brings profound joy. The process results in severe exhaustion.
But there was no rest for Mary. After the baby was born, she was on her own for newborn care. And then before long, shepherds started arriving to see the newborn baby. After that, three wise men stopped by.
But how did Mary handle this? Luke 2:20 states only that, “She pondered these things in her heart.”
And suddenly, there she is — the strong woman I missed before. The initial hours after delivery for Mary can be described as those of an exhausted teen mother, contemplating and pondering the chaos and fright of a minimally aided delivery in a cave while visitors and dignitaries from around her region stopped by to share in the joy of her child’s birth. These are the first moments of motherhood for Mary, the stoic mother of Jesus.
Some of the people reading this essay have traditional Christian views and celebrate Dec. 25 as the birthday of their Savior. Others have a more secular view and see the Bible as a source of ancient wisdom which should be studied and contemplated. Some readers are from other religious traditions with their own sources of wisdom and values. But most will agree on one thing: Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter from the peasant class of his time, transformed values and ethics and morals for millions of people who came after his time.
Stressful events can crush us or they can bring out our as yet undiscovered strengths. Mary had an extremely stressful pregnancy and birth experience. These events may have honed Mary’s abilities as a mother, as a strong woman and as an example to her son. So while Mary did become a religious icon, let’s also remember her as a scared adolescent who did the best she could with the situation she had. She then went on to raise a child who changed the world.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Dr. Marty Olsen is an obstetrics and gynecology physician in Johnson City. He has interests in international medicine and in confronting the opioid epidemic