Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday November 26, 2023 (First Sunday of Advent)
Scripture Reading: Genesis 35:16-21
(This year, our Advent theme is focused on midwifery and birth. Each week, we will hear the story from the bible of someone who was a midwife, or who encountered a midwife. The waiting, the longing, the pain of the “not yet” – all of our Advent themes – are captured in the metaphor of a midwife, in the metaphor of birth.)
My name is Miriam, and I am a midwife in the town of Ephrath, also known as Bethlehem. I was the first-born of 8 children, and when I was a child, I watched the midwife come to our house again and again to deliver my younger siblings. When I was just 6 years old, I began to assist her, fetching her water and clean cloths. She told me about the herbs that she was using, and she had me hold my mother’s hands as my mother strained and pushed.
When my 9th sibling was being born though, my mother died, along with the baby. The midwife cried as she bundled up the wee body and covered my mother’s face with a blanket. I was only 13 years old at that point. My father didn’t know what to do with all of us, and he talked about finding a husband for me, so that I would be one less child he had to worry about.
But then the midwife came and spoke to him, and offered to take me on as an apprentice. She would put a roof over my head, and put food in my belly, and teach me everything that she knew. I knew right away that I didn’t want to get married. I had seen what had happened to my mother, and I didn’t want babies of my own. But instead, I wanted to learn how to help other women and keep them and their babies safe.
And I did learn all this. I learned the rhythm of labour, how it ebbs and flows. I learned how to use different herbs to lessen the pain, to speed up the labour, to slow down the labour, to stop the blood flow. I learned how to feel the baby in its mother’s womb, and how to use the pressure of my hands to change the position of the baby. I learned what prayers to pray to help a mother through the birth. I learned how to deliver the afterbirth, how to cut the cord, how to clean up after the messiness of birth.
I still remember the first time that a mother named her child after me. It had been a long labour, more than a day, but when her baby was safely lying on her chest, the mother smiled at me and told me that she was going to name her Miriam, so that she would never forget how I had helped.
I’m now an old woman. I’ve been working for many years now, and I have started to deliver the children of the babies I delivered when I first started out. The midwife who taught me died last year, but before she did, she told me that my skills were even greater than hers. The student has surpassed the teacher.
Last night was one of the hardest nights I’ve had to face. I had been called out a day and a half earlier to attend a birth at a caravan that was passing through Ephrath. The woman’s name was Rachel, and her husband was Jacob. I’ve seen some strange families in my time, but I have to say that this was one of the stranger ones. Rachel was Jacob’s favourite wife, but her sister Leah was his first wife and the one with precedence in the family. Jacob had 12 children so far – 11 boys and 1 girl. Leah, the first wife, had born 7 of the children. Rachel, the favourite wife, had only born 1 son so far. I’ve you’re doing the math so far, you know that there are 4 children left – two of them had been born by Bilhah, the slave who belonged to Rachel; and the other 2 had been born by Zilpah, the slave who belonged to Leah.
We had many hours to talk, Rachel and I, as she laboured through the long days and nights. One of the things that we do as midwives, the first time we meet a woman, is to find out her history of childbearing. Rachel told me that childbearing didn’t come as easily to her as it did to Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Even though she was the favourite wife, she hadn’t conceived a child for many, many years of marriage, and her heart broke every time she saw the birth of another child to her husband.
She also shared with me, as she rested between the contractions, that when her first son, Joseph, had been born, it hadn’t been an easy passage for either of them. It had been another long and difficult labour, and when he was born, she felt as though she was being ripped in two. It had taken her weeks before she was able to get out of bed and move around her tent, and months before she was able to care for her new baby on her own.
This labour was also a slow one. I could see her energy waning as she entered the second night of labour. I didn’t know if she was going to have the strength to push out this child when the time came. I kept talking to her, and encouraging her, and giving her cups of tea that would hopefully keep the labour moving forward.
And finally it was time for her to push. The pushes were weak at first, but then her body seemed to remember what to do, and the pushes became stronger. Finally, there was a rush of fluid and blood, and I caught this tiny baby before he could land on the straw that had been laid out. He was blue at first, but I knew what to do. I rubbed his little back until he let out a cry, and then I wrapped him in a cloth and laid him on his mother’s chest so that he could feel her breathing, in and out, in and out.
Poor Rachel was exhausted, and she kept slipping in and out of sleep. I sat back to wait for the afterbirth, and I knew that I might need to wait a while after such a long and exhausting labour. There was no hurry to cut the cord until the afterbirth was delivered.
But then everything seemed to happen all at once. Rachel gave a loud shriek which, of course, started the baby to cry. And then there was blood. So much blood, coming fast and bright red.
I kept my voice calm, and I told Rachel that she had to nurse this new baby of hers. She had to focus all of her attention on this new life that she had just brought into the world. And she did. After that first shriek, she talked quietly to her baby, despite the pain and the fear that she must have been feeling.
I tried putting pressure on her womb. I prayed every prayer that I knew. I gave her a tea of herbs that might stop the bleeding. But none of them worked this time. I could see the life fading from her eyes as her blood continued to flow out of her. The last words that she whispered before falling unconscious were to name this new child Ben-Oni or “Son of My Sorrow.”
It is hard to tell a husband that his wife has died. I remember how inconsolable my father had been when my mother and baby sister died. This time, at least, the baby had survived. I went out of the tent to search for Jacob, and found him sitting right outside. He had heard everything, and he had already guessed what had happened. I watched the tears stream down his face when he heard that his beloved Rachel was gone.
But then I was able to tell him that his son was still alive, and the most incredible peace seemed to pass through his body. I’m amazed at how, at a time of such deep grief, peace can still be given as a gift. I placed his son in his arms, and told him that Rachel had named him Ben-Oni. Jacob said no – this child wasn’t going to carry the name of grief, and instead he was going to be called Benjamin, or Son of My Right Hand.
Rachel is going to be buried here, outside of the walls of Bethlehem, near the tent where she had died. And yet her son lives, and the cycle of life continues.
I pray that the peace that was given to Jacob that day might be the sort of peace that lives in all of our hearts – a peace that endures, no matter the circumstances that we face. May this peace be yours, today and every day. Amen.
Rachel’s Tomb, just outside Bethlehem, is now a mosque,
and is located near a checkpoint in the wall that separates
the West Bank from Israel. There are so many layers of irony
in this tourism poster near that checkpoint.
And yet the message of peace abides.
Photo Credit: James Emery on flickr