Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:
Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.
Advent Calendar Day 13: The Midwife
The midwife appears in the apocryphal mid-2nd century Gospel of James, as well as a variety of other non-canonical books that likely used James as one of their sources for nativity stories.
In the story, Mary goes into labor and Joseph leaves her with his sons (plural, which I missed earlier; I ought to have included at least one more in the set. Whoops!) in the cave to find a Hebrew midwife. He comes across one walking (the first woman he sees, luckily), and they race to the cave. Joseph is pretty darn open about the whole conceived-by-the-Holy-Spirit thing, laying all his business out without much prodding, and the midwife seems dubious until they get to the cave and Mary’s nethers are all aglow, lighting up the cave.
The midwife is understandably awed by glowbaby Jesus and the story told by Joseph, and runs to spread the news to some close friends.
When I was in early college I stumbled across the Gospel of James and was floored by it, mostly because, so far as Jesus fan-fiction goes, it’s pretty solid, filling in a lot of the gaps in the canonical gospels, satisfying genre conventions (annunciation of pregnancy to an old but pious couple, etc), and, most of all, adding elements that gave it an earthy and ancient realness (the stable being a cave, for instance, and the logistical necessity of a midwife). I copied it longhand in order to help with memorization. For some reason, who knows what, I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to be able to recall.
Advent Calendar Day 14: Salome
Though the apocryphal Gospel of James doesn’t dwell on the medical details save for the description of a bright light accompanying the delivery, future books do, and Jesus goes from being “born” in the traditional sense to either phasing through Mary or beaming out of her, Star Trek-style, depending on the source.
The midwife, having witnessed temporarily intangible nightlight Jesus appear in this manner, runs out of the cave and encounters Salome, whose relationship with the midwife isn’t fully articulated. Is she a friend? An acquaintance? A relative, maybe? I kind of like the idea that she’s a nosy neighbor frenemy.
Anyway, the midwife tells Salome about Jesus’s miraculous conception, and Salome ain’t buying. So we get a scene that’s basically narrative apologetics for the Virgin Birth: The midwife, alerting Mary to the fact that she’s a subject of “great controversy” (highlighting the symbolic nature of this tableau; two people who’ve been talking about something for forty seconds do not a great controversy make), asks Mary to “show herself,” and Salome checks for a hymen.
Salome’s hand then withers up and seems likely to fall off, which I consider pretty darn fair payout for anybody keen on subjecting someone to the humiliation and discomfort of a physical virginity test, though contextually it’s Salome’s doubt, not the act, that causes it. Salome, freaked out and in pain, cries up to God to forgive her for doubting, and reminds him of how good a person she is. An angel appears and tells her to hold baby Jesus, which she does, and is cured.
Salome served a very important narrative role for early church followers, which was to give a scene in which the met-with-skepticism-Virgin-Birth is directly addressed not by pronouncements but by hard proof (albeit internal anecdotal proof).
I considered drawing her screaming at her dying mummy hand, but I thought it might pull too much from the hopeful solemnity of the crèche scene. Also, because the notion of a hymen being evidence of virginity is, biologically, an errant one (and one that I think has a negative social impact for both genders), I didn’t want any parents to have to explain it to their youngsters, probably necessary given its centrality to this particular story.
Unrelated, today is my thirty-fifth birthday.
Advent Calendar Day 15: The Druggist
In one of the apocryphal infancy gospels, the 8th or 9th century Arabic First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, there’s a lot of crazy stuff that bolsters then-current theological traditions (infant Jesus gives a speech about his own divinity, chases off a robber band, brings to life toy animals, thwarts a vampire, and turns his hide-and-seek playmates into goats), especially the burgeoning emphasis on relics as a standard part of altar construction/veneration in the church. Some folks want to date the Infancy Gospel a couple of centuries earlier, but aside from the statistical unlikelihood of pre-Islamic written texts that could have been translated by westerners in the 17th century (which is when this one found its way to Europe), the motive of any scripture is always colored by the situation of its author(s), and the Infancy Gospel practically reads like a J. Peterman catalog of potential relics, explaining how they would have come to be preserved. This, I think, is the most striking indicator of a post-second-council-of-Nicaea (787 CE) date of authorship, when relics became official church policy rather than merely accepted church policy.
In this book, Jesus’s circumcision is given a specific location: the cave of his birth. The midwife takes the foreskin (yep!) and/or his umbilical cord, and puts it in an alabaster box full of oil-of-spikenard (muskroot). She then gives this to her druggist son and tells him to never sell it. The verse that immediately follows tells us that Mary of Bethany procured the box and used the oil on Jesus when she washed his feet and head, so apparently the druggist didn’t listen to his ma.
Basically, this is the origin story of the Holy Prepuce, which is what the church called Jesus’s foreskin, a relic of which there were, as might be expected, many (after all, what church wouldn’t want a divine weiner flap on the communion table, legit or not?). There’s a lovely article by oft-mentioned Christmas expert Benito Cereno about controversy surrounding these, and you really should read it, but this story is the evidence of its preservation, the eBay certificate of authenticity of the 8th century: