Some of us will celebrate Christmas in the snow. Others in the sun. Those facing water shortages may be praying for rain on our special day of holy celebration. Under whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, we will once again hear the story of a teenage mother left to deliver her own baby one draughty evening in a stable. Trying to put my imagination into a situation 2000 years past, I wonder whether that was actually very far removed from what Mary was expecting. Certainly there were no other options than giving birth at home. And homes were places shared by all-comers, including animals.
Perhaps Mary would have called in the local birth attendant? Joseph may
well have had an idea what was involved, but there were probably women
who made it their business in rural communities to support women as they
This is a situation familiar to many women even now. Qualified midwives
and clinical facilities are in relatively short supply throughout the
developing world. 'Traditional birth attendants' (TBAs) are the only
support many women can find as they anticipate the joyous yet sometimes
dangerous birth of their child. Naturally, the medical community wants
to offer the highest level of support to women in pregnancy. The World
Health Organization is campaigning for countries to marginalise TBAs and
train more midwives. Many governments are actively discouraging these
men and women from acting in their 'amateurish' fashion. But despite
this, a high percentage of births are still overseen by TBAs.
In Ghana recently I was challenged by a compromise solution in the face
of limited maternity services. The Diocese of Accra was running a
project to improve the skills of TBAs. I went to the 'graduation'
ceremony, where each TBA was offered a box of useful equipment following
9 days of training under supervision of staff from a hospital in the
UK. Each graduating TBA was accompanied by one of their 'clients'. In
fact, one of them reported attending a labour a couple of days before
and finding the training for a difficult birth precisely relevant,
leading to a positive outcome in the face of real danger.
A number of things took me by surprise. One was that there were some men
who had come for training. It was said that most pregnant women prefer
male TBAs, though the majority were women. The other surprise was that
Ghanian women were deliberately choosing TBAs rather than maternity
clinics. Local culture valued the opportunity to bury a placenta under a
tree in order to gain blessings. The local hospital was required to
treat the placenta as clinical waste. A difficult tension in the face of
long held cultural practices.
Our Christmas story reminds us that Jesus emerged into the same
uncertain conditions as so many babies in rural communities. Mary was
fortunate not to suffer complications and was able to devote herself to
Jesus' upbringing. A holy mystery shone into their lives that night as
they encountered some strange and varied visitors to this place of
blood, amniotic fluid and breast milk. This is the heart of our
religious experience; that God emerged in this messy and unscripted
Wherever a woman gives birth, whether supported by more or less skilled
attendants, we are reminded of the first cry of Emmanuel into our world.
This is where it happened. This is the setting we should support and
A blessed Christmas to all