The season of the midwife

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I have always seen Advent as the season of the midwife. Advent has a secular meaning -""The coming or arrival, especially of something extremely important - an arrival that has been awaited (especially of something momentous)". Today's readings from Mass Matthew 24:37 - 44 and Romans 13:11-14 both tell us that we will not know the hour but that we need to be prepared. So too is it with childbirth - we know the approximate time that the child is expected to arrive, but babies don't often arrive exactly when expected. As a matter of fact, only one in two hundred will actually arrive on the exact date that was estimated in advance. The EDC is the estimated date of childbirth, not the exact date - we can only know the exact date after the fact. So too for the children of Israel - they could know by signs and portents that the Messiah would be arriving, they could even know into what tribe He would be born - but they could not know until after the fact that He had arrived.
Tradition tells us that Mary had an easy childbirth, as she was protected from the 'curse of Eve' (Genesis 3:16-19). She did not bring forth her child 'in sorrow' - no, her sorrow was to come much later on. She must have had signs that the birth was imminent - such that she could prepare the manger and so on - but I am sure that she did not have the hours or days of hard work that most mortal women go through in preparation for giving birth. And I have heard that she had no midwife - something I find hard to believe if only to have a companion )as Joseph would not have been able to touch her at all once her labor began - not until the 40 days had passed).
Not all women experience severe pain in childbirth - but it is hard work. In Genesis, Adam was told that he would toil (etzev) to bring forth fruit from the earth by the sweat of his brow, and Eve was told that she would travail (etzev) to bring forth fruit from her womb. Eventually, God had mercy on His children - he sent the men draft animals and tools to help him plow and plant - and to women he sent the midwife.
Midwifery is mentioned early in the Old Testament. A sad reference is to the birth of Benjamin and death of Rachel - Genesis 35: 16-19 , probably a breech birth, as the midwife told Rachel she had a son even before he was fully born. My favorite reference is to the midwives of Egypt - Shifrah and Puah in one translation, Sephora and Phua in the Douay-Rheims translation. Their civil disobedience, their action to preserve life in the face of a culture of death, makes an admirable example to the midwives, nurses, and physicians of today. In Exodus 1:16-21, we learn that God not only approved but He rewarded those faithful midwives.
Being a midwife means spending a lot of time seemingly doing nothing, simply waiting on the baby and helping the mom cope. If I have done my job well, I will seem to be unnecessary. If I have helped a mom to stay healthy during her months as a lady-in-waiting, her hours of labor will be more manageable. I think that God has given us the equivalent of midwives to help us prepare for the coming of our Messiah - He has given us the sacraments and the priests to minister them to us. We are cleansed by Penance, fed by Eucharist, healed through both these sacraments and also through the Anointing of the sick.
The word "midwife" in English comes from the old English words mit (with) wyf (woman) - with woman. In Spanish and Portugese there are two terms for this calling - partera and/or comadrona. Partera is to assist in parturition, comadrona is a mothering companion. There is also a lovely idiom for giving birth - dar luz (to give light). The mother gives light to the child she is bringing forth. Sometimes, in the moments of birth, we joke around and tell the baby "come to the light". I have noticed over the years that, left alone, labors tend to happen more in the night time and that babies like to arrive with the dawn. Most labors these days are not left alone to find their own rhythms, but I know that of my 6 children, 5 were born between midnight and dawn, and none between noon and midnight.
Christ is our Light. In Advent we await the coming of our light, but we also have a responsibility to move towards that light. It is no mistake that, in that hemisphere which first became Christian, Advent comes as the days are becoming shorter and shorter. Have you ever noticed that the colors of the dawn in winter are the purples and rose of Advent? Lately I have had to leave for work before sunrise, and as I am driving south I can see the first streaks of purple turning rose with the sunrise, and I am reminded of the candles of my Advent wreath.


That's lovely! Thank you for your thoughts.


Nice post, Alicia. I never thought of it that way (which is why I like to read your do lots of thinking so I don't have to!!!!).

But I sure hope you're wrong about those babies coming in the wee hours!!! I'm a morning person and don't like to be up too late. My first four were all born between 1:15pm and 11:30pm, so I'm hoping this one (a day late, now) will follow suit. I wonder how it would all work out if I adjusted for time zone issues??? My kids have been born in Georgia, Alaska, Virginia, Arizona and now England. Hrrrmmmm.

I read your post a couple of days ago and really enjoyed it. I have been thinking about it off and on since that time, and I just wanted to let you know how much it is helping me meditate on Advent.



What a nice post! So much to chew on --

If only 1 in 200 babies arrives on his due-date, what does it mean that both my sons arrived on their due-dates? :-)

Of course, this was the NFP-derived due-date, not the due-date the dr's office insisted on deriving with the little wheel. By the time #4 rolled around, I refused to tell them the LMP date because I knew they'd mess things up. :-)

Alicea...are you familiar with the doctrine that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus?
This was interpreted to mean physically virgin, with an intact hymen. I am not sure if the physically virgin part was ever defined doctrine (I'll have to consult my Ott (the name of the author) , which classifies statements by degrees as essential to the faith, almost or next to essential, etc, and also classifies heresies by their degree of ...hereticalness? The least degree of heresy is "offensive to pious ears." ) Even if not absolutely defined doctrine, this was the general understanding and taught this way for years. For instance one priest giving me instruction said that he was taught that Jesus passed through Mary like a beam of light through a window pane. To me, this borders on the Docetist heresy, that Jesus only appeared to be a man, sort of like a projection of God onto earth with the image of a man. I felt rebellious against this teaching and felt guilty that I felt rebellious. Now I find you, a very orthodox person, writing as if you had never heard of it. I would certainly be glad to dispense with it as an accretion to the doctrine of Mary's virginity from and age which interpreted virginity in far too physical a way. What do you think about this?

I am familiar with the doctrine - Mary ever virgin - and if the church says it, I believe it. But I also believe that Mary gave birth in the usual physical manner. As far as retaining her virginity - I believe that in some miraculous way she was able to give birth and remain virgin. I leave the details to God. The hymen could have dilated and then contracted much as the cervix does, but I am not worried about the details.

Ott (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma) calls the doctrine that "Mary bore her son without any violation of her physical integrity"
De fide on the ground of the general promulgation of doctrine. (meaning that it hasn't been actually defined by any council of the church.)

He comments " The dogma merely asserts the fact of the continuance of Mary's physical virginity without determining more closely how this is to be physiologically explained. In general the Fathers and the Schoolmen conceived it as non-injury to the hymen, and accordingly taught that Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion wihout opening of the womb and injury to the hymen, and consequently also without pains.
However according th modern natural scientific knowledge the purely physical side of virginity consists in the non fulfilment of the sex act. Thus injury to the hymen in birh does not destroy virginity,while on the other hand , its rupture seems to belong to complete natural motherhood. It follows from this that from the concept of virginity alone the miraculous character of the process of birth cannot be inferred , if it cannot be and must not be derived from other facts of Revelation. Holy Writ attests Mary's active role in the act of birth (MtI, 25;Luke 2,7:She brought forth.") which does not seem to indicate a miraculous process.
But the Fathers with few exceptions vouch for the miraculous character of the birth. However the question is whether in so doing they attest a truth of Revelation or whether they wrongly interpret a truth of Revelation."

When I took Ott off the shelf and let it fall open, it opened to this page, which seems to indicate that this was of some concern to me before. There had been a movie on TV which had scenes of Mary giving birth in the straw, not real birth pictures of course, but I remember it showed her hands clenching and grasping at the straw in pain. The Wanderer (a very conservative Catholic paper) printed an article decrying this as not in accordance with the idea that Mary gave birth miraculously, without pain, which they represented as doctrine. I remember that the article said that if Mary had gone through the agony of a normal birth, would St. Joseph not have protected her from being disturbed and intruded upon by a whole bunch of shepherds so soon after wards? I don't know if they said "agony" but that was the general tenor of it. You could hear in it the thoughts of men who had not been with their wives for the births of their children, and who could only imagine it as terrible pain from which their wives were partially protected by being heavily medicated.
I thought this was a particularly poor argument for what they were asserting. I very much wanted Our Lady to have shared our experience of having given birth.

Ott is fairly reassuring on the subject, although I don't really like being at variance with the Fathers and the Schoolmen. Escpecially since what he says about "modern natural scientific knowledge" makes no sense at all. The people of Biblical times, and of the middle ages, knew perfectly well what happens during birth, and that the hymen gets ruptured then if it has not been before. (Just as the people of Biblical times knew just as well as we do that men don't customarily rise from the dead.)
whether one defines virginity as an intact hymen or as not having engaged in sex, is a matter of definition and attitude having nothing to do with any new scientific knowledge.

Nevertheless, if this epitome of precision in doctrine thinks it is an open question, I think we can take it as an open question.

Susan F. Peterson

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This page contains a single entry by alicia published on November 28, 2004 9:11 PM.

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