Shifra’s Story is a story of advent, written through the lens of a birth assistant. It is unique in that it is an attempt to retell the Christmas story through a female lens, focusing on the very real, very messy parts of the story that the gospels skip over. This is chapter 4 of 6.
Although tired, I was relieved to find I must have fallen asleep in the early hours of the morning. A new day had dawned, and Mariam was still pregnant! As she and I packed our things quietly side-by-side, she looked over and gave me a scared little smile.
We crossed the Jordan at a narrow channel, where other travellers had already taken the time to place stepping stones along the path. Then we faced the grueling climb up the steep slopes on the western side. The path was rocky and tricky, and I made sure I stayed behind Mariam, giving a reassuring hand to her back or under her elbow during the trickiest times.
It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that she began to have pains sporadically throughout the day – I was just thankful that they were not yet regular, and she was still able to walk through them. Indeed, I think I may have been the only one paying enough attention to notice they were there. That was fine with me.
We reached Bethany by nightfall, and after reuniting with David and Jonathan who would accompany us on the remainder of our trip, we made camp one last time before Bethlehem. I made sure I arranged our sleeping mats so that I could rest beside Mariam tonight. The hills around Bethany were swarming with people, as so many were travelling at this time. Our little party made a tight circle around our fire, but it was anything but private. When the men decided to go and talk to the group beside us, I asked Micah to fetch me a jar of water and my bag of medicinal herbs, and I went to work bathing Mariam’s feet – first with water to clean them, and then with lavender and oil to loosen her muscles.
As she relaxed, Mariam finally said to me, “I don’t know whether you’ll believe me or not, but I feel I can trust you – that I’m going to have to trust you.”
Women often come out with their deepest secrets just on the cusp of labor, or during labor even. I have known this to happen to me on several occasions while helping the local village women deliver, and this came as no surprise to me now. So I didn’t look up when she said this – I simply continued to rub her feet, slowly and tenderly, waiting for Mariam to choose her time, and her words on her own terms.
“This isn’t Joseph’s baby I’m carrying,” Mariam went on. I had wondered as much. There was an edge to their relationship that was hard to understand – Joseph treated her well, but he didn’t have the same pride of a new father-to-be that I had come to expect.
Then came the bombshell. “It’s actually God’s.” This stopped even my well-trained hands in their tracks. What was this – blasphemy? Was it the heat? Was she hallucinating? But no …
“It was almost nine months ago now – at the beginning of the summer. I was engaged to marry Joseph, and the wedding was set for the fall. We had known each other for years, and I think we were both very pleased with the match our parents had made for us.
“One day, my mother was out visiting a friend, and my siblings were all out in the fields. I had been left to get the noon meal ready, and was working at my usual pace. The house was dark, as the sun was still rising, and the trees gave us good shade at that time of day. Then all of a sudden there was a man standing there, brilliantly white – so bright that the whole house shone like it was outside in the middle of the day!
“‘Good morning!’ he said. ‘You are beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out. God be with you!’
“I was shocked. No man had ever entered our home without my Ava there. No man had ever spoken to me in such a way. I couldn’t figure out who he was or what he wanted. I must have looked shocked, because he went on.
“‘Mariam, you have nothing to fear.’ He knew my name! Oh, I had much to fear at that point! ‘God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be great, and be called ‘Son of the Highest.’ The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; He will rule Jacob’s house forever – no end, ever, to his kingdom.’
“The angel was right when he said God had a surprise for me. This wasn’t just a little surprise, either. It was incredible – remarkable – unbelievable! And that was just the problem!
“‘But how in the world is that going to happen? I’ve never slept with a man before. I’m not getting married until the harvest, and I assure you I have kept myself pure for my husband. Will it happen then? I don’t understand!’
“The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest will hover over you; therefore the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, the Son of God.’
“How was I going to explain this? How would Joseph take it? What was I going to do? What would my parents say? And as I was trying to make sense of all of this, the angel added that my cousin Elizabeth was pregnant!”
“I don’t quite know what came over me then, but I said all I could think of at the time, ‘I’m the Lord’s servant, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.’ That seemed to be all the answer the angel needed, because next thing I knew he was gone.”
Something in me stirred. Now I saw why Mariam had slowly spun out her tail … starting with the song her cousin’s husband had sung, then telling me of her cousin’s birth. She had been testing me to see if I was trustworthy – trustworthy enough for this, the biggest secret anyone could possibly be entrusted with.
I did not want to believe her – did not want to accept that this 15-year-old was carrying a baby that God had placed inside of her. But I remembered the looks of discomfort she had made whenever intimacy in marriage had come up. I had wondered why she seemed so innocent – like my Ruth – at things all women knew. This would answer that question.
But I didn’t know what to say. If this was true, than Mariam – from Nazareth – was carrying the Messiah, the Holy One. I didn’t even believe that the prophecies were true, and Mariam was laying here telling me that not only were they true, but these contractions were marking the start of his birth. A birth it now seemed distinctly likely that I would attend.
I realized I had paused in my massage – lost in my thoughts. I quickly regained my composure, massaging her feet and now up onto her legs, hoping that Mariam might continue her story. Now I was curious.
“What did Joseph say when you told him?” I prompted her.
“At first he was incredibly angry. He stormed away from me when I went out to the fields to tell him quietly. I’m sure he thought I had slept with another of the boys in the village, or been had by a passing soldier, and though none of these were true, I didn’t really blame him for not understanding.”
“The next day, I told my parents I needed to go to visit cousin Elizabeth, without telling them the reason why, and thankfully they agreed. I hoped that perhaps she could help me make sense of what had gone on – if what the angel had said was really true, perhaps she would understand. After Joseph’s response, I certainly couldn’t tell my Ima.”
“My brother took me, and when we got there, Elizabeth came rushing out to me, and before I had time to call out more than a ‘hello!’ Elizabeth started to gush: ‘You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, is also blessed! And why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me? The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears the babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy. Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true.’
“Her words had an incredible effect on me. Bubbling out of my soul came this response that I felt I had been longing to say ever since the angel arrived – and now I felt I could say it safely, because here was a woman who would understand – who could accept my words: “I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened – I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattering the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It’s exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.”
Here were those words of hope again. I heard them in my ears, and felt them trickle down into my cold, hard heart. What if it were true? What if it were possible?
“But Joseph,” I asked, “obviously he came around – what happened?”
“Oh, he had this strange idea that he was going to divorce me quietly while I was away with Elizabeth – no fuss, no bother back at home – and then I think he hoped I wouldn’t ever return home again, so that no one ever needed to know. I guess it was kind of him, to a point, but apparently God had other ideas. He told me that just before he was going to come and see me, he, too, was visited by an angel. The angel confirmed to him what I had said, and told him to come and get me, and marry me, but to not lie with me until after the baby was born.”
This I took careful note of. If this was true – and it seemed now that my heart told me to believe it – that was going to make labor so much harder than it would have been even for your average first time mother. Indeed, if she was still a virgin, I did not know what kind of problems she might face laboring, for I could only assume that the method of placing seed inside of a woman did the same for a baby’s birth as the hole I make with my finger when I plant vegetable seeds – that it allows the seed a clear path to sprout through, instead of the otherwise tough ground.
I was concerned.
Now, as Mariam – unburdened at last by having finally told me her story, tired from our wearying walk, and relaxed by the touch of my hands – fell asleep, I continued to massage her feet, and as I did so I thought about all that she had said. Was it possible? Was it really true? What if it was? What if, in the middle of the darkness of Roman oppression, and hunger, and danger and taxes, God had chosen this moment in time to save His people? That was incredible enough, but that he would allow me – the skeptic, the outcast, the lonely – to be let in on this secret was more than I could get my brain around. And then my heart screamed out at me, that not only had he let me in on the secret, but I was going to have a role to play in this. Because unless something even more unexpected happened and these contractions stopped, I was the most likely person to help Mariam deliver her baby – the Son of God!
What an honor. What an incredible privilege. I had been at a few dozen births over the years. My own eight, obviously, but I had also been called to many other births by village women in the last few years. I had learned a lot from the older women. I hoped I knew enough to care for Mariam!