Women and Nativity

While they were there the time came for her have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.  Luke 2:6-7

The whole Birth Narrative is only 46 words long.  That’s all.

Rich in detail – swaddling bands, manger, no room – to make the point of poverty/disadvantage of this new sort of Messiah, it’s actually doing some very strange things.  Why make the point of ‘her first born’, be-labouring the obvious?  After all, we’ve been told she’s a virgin (approximately 13-14 years old) and recently betrothed to Joseph.  Except to confirm her good reputation – no one would even think she might have had previous children – it does by accident show the pressures on her.

Then there’s three simple female singular pronouns: ‘she gave birth’, ‘she wrapped’, ‘she laid‘ which are so inadequate, yet preachers of the Gospel seem to find them unremarkable.

Childbirth always was women’s business in the plural, and even the meanest town would find a midwife to help a 14 year old going into labour for the first time.  Are other women at the inn likely to leave a lass facing 12-24 hours of labour on her own and just turn in for the night?

They know and she knows she’s in for a hard time.

One in 50 women died in childbirth in Rome at that time (including Caesar’s daughter Julia) and young girls were especially at risk.

And when it’s all over and she’s exhausted, it’s the women who sponge the mother and wash the babe and swaddle it – and other women come with gifts (food?) to congratulate and admire.  (Plus keep an eye on the lass for fear of post-partum sepsis.)

Where are the women in the nativity scene?

Have a think.  There’s one lone woman and everyone else is male.

The rest of the Nativity story, and it’s by far the longer part of the narrative, is about the shepherds.  (Yes, King David was a shepherd boy in his youth.)  It’s so vivid, and so emotionally appealing, we hardly notice the summary way with which the actual birth was dealt.  And urban Luke in his urbane Greek the better part of a century later perhaps doesn’t realise the status of a shepherd in Jewish society.  In the days before branded wool or ear-tags it was amazing how the odd sheep would ‘drift‘ from one flock to another.  Shepherds were notably light-fingered thieves and liars.  Their evidence was explicitly excluded from Jewish courts.  But they joyfully fill out the Lucan narrative, their evidence confirmed by the courts of Heaven’s angels.

By Sandy Curnow


Main image:  Earliest depiction of Nativity, the ox and ass (from Isaiah), swaddled babe and no one else.   The sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan cir CE 400

Advent Season Faith Reflections


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Helen Fox

Beautifully explained, thank you.

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Helen Darrer

Beautifully expressed Sandy!

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