“Did Mary have labor pain in the birth of Jesus?”

Many theologians through the ages of Christianity who embrace the dogma of the Immaculate Conception understand that Mary had no sickness, no pain, and even – for some – no death because these aspects of human life were the “punishments” of original sin.
by Doctor Virginia M. Kimball | Source: ESBVM.org
When we reflect on the parturition of Mary [giving birth to her child], we encounter the mystery of God. We know her to be immaculate [proclaimed as the Immaculate Conception by Roman Catholics], all-holy [called Panagia by Orthodox, eastern Christians], and truly the mother who bore God [a biblical element of the New Testament kerygma, shared unilaterally by all Christians including those in the Reform Tradition].

The question is this: did Mary who bore the Son of God experience “pain” in childbirth, or was her parturition free of pain. Many theologians through the ages of Christianity who embrace the dogma of the Immaculate Conception understand that Mary had no sickness, no pain, and even – for some – no death because these aspects of human life were the “punishments” of original sin, “punishments” from which Mary was exempted as the Immaculate Conception. For others who embrace the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, this exemption from suffering and death is not necessarily connected to Mary’s privilege as Immaculate Conception, believing her freed from sin -- the death-like separation from God, from the time of her conception as a human being; and she was conceived as all other human beings by two human parents, Joachim and Anna. For those who understand in the eastern tradition that Mary was truly “immaculate” and “all-holy” as described by John of Damascus, there is also a firm belief that she was truly human but did not escape the trials of this life including doubt, fear, sorrow, suffering and even death.

In delving into this question of what Mary’s parturition, childbearing, was truly like, we have no historical record and have to be careful to avoid imaginary speculation, and even the temptation to lift Mary from her humanity to a divine level. Docetism, a pernicious heresy of the first Christian ages, proclaimed that Jesus was truly divine and only posing in human form. Later in the mid-fifth century, the church council at Ephesus demonstrated the humanity of Christ by referring to the humanity of the mother who bore Him, utilizing the term “Theotokos” [Mary as bearer of God’s Son, distinguished from being herself a goddess and mother of a god].

There are many ways to reflect on Mary’s birth-giving including:

1) the biblical birth narratives in the New Testament;

2) a study of the actual Hebrew text in Genesis 3:16 (“To the woman he said, “I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children ….” NAB)

3) writings outside the biblical texts such as the Protoevangelium of James;

4) references to Mary’s birth-giving in early patristic writers such as Justin and Irenaeus [the Eve-Mary parallel], Ambrose, Augustine, the Cappadocians--especially Gregory of Nyssa, and later John of Damascus;

5) the typological language of early Christianity in its understanding of Old Testament passages relating to the birth of the messiah;

6) a theological study of sin and grace as it relates to the Fall of humanity in the garden and the effects of “original sin”;

7) most importantly the view of women today who have experienced childbirth, in particular “natural childbirth,” and their view of what “pain” might be in childbirth;

8) and, finally, the implication if any from rabbinic literature on childbirth in the Jewish social context of the first century.

In view of the brevity of space to enter into study of each of the above, a few more comments are offered by the author, who indeed has experienced the birth of nine children and has been involved for years in family centered maternity care and educated childbirth. A classic study of “pain” and its impact on childbirth was published in 1959 by Dr. Grantley Dick-Read who believed that for Christians “childbirth is fundamentally a spiritual as well as a physical achievement… that the birth of a child is the ultimate perfection of human love.” [Grantley Dick-Read, M.D., Childbirth without Fear, The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), xvi.] In this approach to natural childbirth, Dr. Dick-Read identified an important factor: that fear leads to pain. The birth process itself is a natural functioning of muscles, designed by God, and with each contraction the baby moves further down the birth canal toward birthing. If the mother cooperates with the bodily process of birth, she understands that it is not pain she is experiencing but rather labor, and hard work at that. In the biblical text of Genesis, we find also that man’s labor is intensified is his part of living: “By the sweat of your face, shall you get bread to eat … . NAB” [Genesis 3: 19] By rejecting God’s loving kindness and sustenance, and choosing their own will over God’s, humanity would then have to labor to exist. The joy of birthing life, however, was not completely extinguished. At the moment of birth, if un-medicated, a woman experiences an unmatched physical feeling of joy. If, then, we theologically understand that Mary was all-holy and immaculate, filled with God’s presence--actually a life-giving presence, then her delivery was natural and her body functioned with little or no “pain.”

Indeed, there is a strong tradition that Mary nursed her child, itself also a sexual functioning of her body. Women who nurse their children do experience some uncomfortable moments sometimes when the milk “lets down” and if the baby is not positioned correctly at the breast. To understand that Jesus was truly human and came into this world in a truly human way, it is possible to believe that Mary’s birth-giving was completely natural. In addition, we learn from the Protoevangelium of James that Joseph called for midwives to assist Mary. This tradition is repeated in the writing of the Nativity Icon from the early ages of Christianity. If Mary did not experience the natural progression of birth-giving then why did she need midwives?

The question of Mary giving birth to Jesus is something we need to ponder. For mothers who know well what it means to give birth naturally, they see how Mary, who was most holy and living under God’s protection, delivered Jesus in a natural and beautiful way as designed by the Author of Life. One can ask, if there was a miraculous “appearance” of the baby Jesus outside of the normal birth process, would that not have been something to chronicle in the birth narratives given us by Luke and Matthew?

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Post a Comment
Published by: axel.bushing
Date: 2011-03-20 08:08:33
If Mary were to be free of the discomforts of childbirth, why would Christ need to be gestated in a womb at all! The true miracle of the birth of Jesus is that He is God and Man simultaneously, born to an ordinary person who, apart from gender, might have been any of us who are obedient to the call of God. If Mary is not subject to the ordinary woes of humanity, there is no point in appealing to her for help, as she can only be puzzled by our condition. However, if she endured morning sickness, labour pains, even perhaps post-partum depression, then she and her Son can have compassion for the afflicted and the melancholy state of humankind.

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