by Katie Sampias
I remember that evening. After it my life was different.
“Ouch!”, I had been mending some clothes, and I felt irritated after pricking myself. I put my needle and thread down. I was tired, and this was a sign it was time to stop.
But I found it hard to be idle. I held my hands up to my face and studied them. They were worn and wrinkled, but they were not withered or fragile. They were the hands of a hard worker — a mid-wife who had delivered several hundred babies in her career.
I remembered a time when these hands had not carried so many wrinkles. Back then I had felt differently. I was full of wonder and amazement at the miracles I experienced in every birth. Now I felt detached and apathetic.
I am not sure when or why this sort of apathy had begun. I had not always been this way. When I started out as a mid-wife, I felt the pain and joys of childbirth along with those I was supporting. I often had wept alongside the mother when she had held her infant for the first time. I descended into feelings of darkness and despair for days or weeks after a birth that had not gone as planned; when a mother or baby had not made it or when a child had been born unwell.
It was not just in my work where I felt like this. Sometimes, back then, I felt that I was just going through the mechanical process of living. Not always, but for the most part, I felt emotionally detached from what was happening. I found it hard to be happy for someone celebrating a success or milestone, or surprised by something unexpected. I also found it hard to be deeply saddened by a death or illness of someone I knew.
There were some emotions that still would rise up from within me from time to time. One of those was anger, and at this time anger at Caesar. I thought of the poor pregnant women who would have to travel for the census that had been declared. There was no point in wishing that Caesar would make exceptions for pregnant women. Such a man did not have the capacity to understand these women’s states or situations or that such journeys could induce labour. I ensured the mid-wives I had trained were aware and that they spread the word to other mid-wives in the area that birth rates would become higher. There would a lot of women who thought they had longer caught unawares.
In the weeks beforehand, I supervised the preparation of baskets full of essentials for these mothers – swaddling clothes, sheep fat and under-garments. We found women who could assist by making and delivering meals and other essentials to those in recovery. They would need nourishment in their time of confinement. They would be without the comforts of their home and those who would normally be the ones who ensured they were cared for. We also encouraged mid-wives who had not recently practiced to ensure their kits were in order and refresh their skills by attending births with more mid-wives who were more active.
It was nearly mid-night when the wife of a local inn-keeper, Martha, knocked loudly on my door. I had just fallen asleep sitting in my armchair. She let me know there was a young girl, Mary, who was in labour. She told me the couple was in the stables because the inn had been full.
“You will need to help me,” I told Martha, struggling to bring myself out of the grogginess from having been asleep.
“We will need hot and cold water throughout the evening, and I presume there will be none in the stables,” I stated, trying to snap myself back into my practical self.
Martha agreed. Together, we made haste through the night to Mary. My simmering anger at Caesar rose from deep within my gut to my throat as I felt my joints give way a little as I stumbled on some rocks on the road. I remembered how busy my last week had been — one, sometimes two births per night. My aging body needed to rest and this birth we were hastening to was going to be more complicated by the fact that it would not be inside a building with the usual amenities.
When we arrived, I found that Mary had in fact been labouring for some time. She told me the cramps had begun that afternoon as they had entered Bethlehem. She had first thought they were the false pains that other mothers had warned her about. It was only in the last hour or so that she had realised she was in true labour. She told me she was unsure about dates, but she had thought she had at least another few weeks until the baby was due and that her and Joseph had planned to be back in Nazareth at that time.
Although Mary seemed to have the same sort of anxiety that most women have when giving birth for the first time, she also seemed to have a deep inner peace and acceptance of whatever should come her way throughout the process. This was a relief to me, and her countenance cushioned my irritation a little.
I got to work trying to get Mary to move into the positions that would make her feel the most comfortable and gave her suggestions about how she could distract herself from the pains of her contractions with breathing and movement. She listened to me and followed my instructions as best as she could, and her labour progressed well.
Joseph sent Martha home to rest after asking her from where he could source the water. He built a fire where it could be boiled and through the night he brought what was needed from the main building. I was impressed by Joseph’s humility in being so involved and helpful. In my work, I had witnessed so many men who seemed indifferent to the work their wives were performing in childbirth. Most, I thought, would have left Martha to labour during the night and have made themselves scarce. Perhaps not all men were like Caesar, I thought.
The baby was born just before dawn. As soon as I delivered him, I gave him to Joseph to hold while I attended to Mary. Joseph brought him over to Mary’s side so she could see him and his little black button eyes for a moment opened to see what the world was about. His parents, although exhausted, cradled him with adoring love.
In that moment, something happened that I find impossible to accurately describe. It felt like something else or some other presence had entered the room. It was something I could not see. It was a spirit, or perhaps several spirits or beings. I could not see any of them, but I could feel a tingling in my bones and through my body a warmth; a heat. It felt as though these beings were rejoicing for the birth.
I had to consciously turn my mind to what practically had to be done next, as the atmosphere was so consuming. It would have been easy to let myself be completely distracted by the strange sensations, but I needed to finish what I was required.
I attended to Mary and then took the child from his parents for the routine checks to ensure he was healthy and well. When I held the infant, I felt it was not only invisible beings changing the energy of the room. It was also the newborn himself.
I felt flooded with tangible love. It was like light was emanating from his tiny body and entering my own. Memories of times I had been greatly loved welled within me, and it felt like these acts were taking place again in that moment. Emotions I had not been able to properly feel for years permeated throughout me. I felt like some wall within me was being broken by the love of this baby and this family. I involuntarily broke into tears. I did not fully understand what these tears were for at the time. But, on reflection, they were tears of sadness and of joy. The sadness I think was from many emotions I had been carrying from deep within me, but I had not acknowledged to myself or properly processed — sadness about my time passing, the loss of friends who had passed on, my loneliness. The joy was something harder to understand. It was from the love I was feeling. I had felt for so long that I was forgotten and unvalued. But, now I felt worthy. I felt colour around me and within me. I felt truly alive.
I wanted to hold him forever, but I knew I could not. I needed to hand him back to his mother so he could feed. I also did not want to leave the stable, but I knew I needed my rest if I were to continue looking after Mary and her child during the next few days. So I left to return to my home mid-way through the morning.
The recovery and visitors
Over the next week, I tried to visit Mary, the newborn, and Joseph on as many occasions as was possible. I also sent others to check in on them when I was unable to attend. The baby boy proved to be strong and a good feeder. Martha was taken with the newborn and his family and brought meals and refreshments to them throughout the week. Mary, Joseph, and the newborn wanted for nothing. Every time I entered the stables I was enfolded by the strange sensations I felt following the birth. I felt like I was receiving more from the visits than the parents or child. Every time I came and then left, I felt I had been strengthened in body and spirit.
There were some other strange happenings that took place at the stables in the days following the birth – including some unexpected visitors.
A few local shepherds visited. They kept their distance from the newborn, mother, and father and stood at the side of the room. They seemed in a state of shock. I found it incredibly strange that local shepherds would visit in this way. I overheard them telling Mary and Joseph that they had been visited by angels while tending their flock and told of a birth that had occurred nearby that would change the world.
Another mid-wife who visited told me that on one of the occasions she visited three older men wearing foreign and expensive clothes had arrived and given Mary and Joseph expensive gifts for the child. Their story about how they had been led to visit was similar to that of the shepherds. They reported an external sign showing the way – a great star – which in their culture predicted the birth of a great King.
I accepted that I did not understand what was taking place in this stable. The sensations I felt and the strange happenings kept making me want to return and to stay as much as possible with the new family.
On the eighth day after the birth, Mary and Joseph named their baby Jesus and had him circumcised.
Then one night I was staying with the family, holding Jesus while the new parents slept. I noticed Joseph started to thrash around in his sleep.
“No!” I heard him shout out.
He woke up, startled.
He saw me holding Jesus.
“Are you okay?” I asked?
“Mary, Jesus and I will need to leave!”
I was concerned about this, as I was not sure Mary would be well enough to travel. But the urgency in Joseph’s voice was so intense that I decided not to protest. After all that had happened, I knew better than to question Joseph’s judgement. I started thinking about how I could prepare Mary so that she would be as comfortable as possible for the journey.
Joseph gently woke Mary and whispered in her ear. She calmly accepted whatever it was that he said to her and came over to me to thank me for everything I had done during her birth and recovery. She apologised for having to leave so abruptly.
“My pleasure Mary. No problem with leaving. I just want to ensure you are as comfortable as possible,” I reassured her.
While Joseph hurried to pack up his and his family’s belongings around the manger, I handed Jesus back to Mary and created a cushion from some rags for use while sitting on the donkey. I told her to tell Joseph when she needed a break and to walk a little when she could reduce her sitting time. Mary listened intently and nodded.
Joseph, being a practical man, was a fast worker, and it was not long until he had saddled and packed the donkey. He took some coins out from a satchel he carried around his waist and gave some to me for my services. He also gave some extra coins to me and instructed me to give these to the inn-keeper and his wife, Martha, for the lodging and care they had provided.
I rummaged through my midwifery kit to see if there was anything else I could give her but could not find anything else practical. I did find a small Hand of Miriam ornament made of wood. I had kept this in my kit in the hope that Yahweh would protect the children and the mothers delivering them during birth. I decided to give this to Mary for protection on her journey.
I instinctively knew that Joseph and Mary wanted their departure to be as quiet as possible, so I silently hugged Mary and handed her the ornament. She smiled and hugged me again. I then nodded at Joseph. I kissed baby Jesus on the forehead and then watched as Joseph and Mary left the stables. Mary carried Jesus and Joseph led the donkey down the dusty street. They had only a small oil lamp attached to the donkey to guide their way.
I felt worried for them. I did not know what sort of problems or danger they were experiencing or where they were going, but Joseph’s countenance had disclosed that whatever they were facing was something evil and to be feared.
I also felt sadness that I was to be separated from this family. I know they were not mine, and they were not even from Bethlehem. I knew this moment was inevitable. But, I worried that what had risen in me would not withstand their departure. I felt so differently. I did not want that feeling to end.
It took me a while to calm myself after they left, to get my bearings and plan my next move. Although the sensations I was feeling changed a little after their departure, I did still feel within myself a deep sense of peace and a strong hope. I felt like some invisible being still present in the room was encouraging me to relax and reassuring me that things would be okay. I resigned myself to the fact that whatever danger the young family was in, there was nothing more I could do. I was tired and decided to leave it until the sun rose to walk home. I found myself a place to lay my head in the hay and fell asleep.
Katie Sampias lives in Brisbane, Australia. She recently gave birth to her third child, who thankfully so far appears to be completely healthy despite her experiencing some complications with him during her third trimester. Katie has previously worked as a lawyer and in marketing and communications. She loves writing historical fiction pieces based on the lives of women of the gospels and prose reflections on where God has worked in her life. You can find more of her writing at whitewaves.net