Unto Us a Child Is Born—But First, Contractions

Unto Us a Child Is Born—But First, Contractions December 26, 2023

Mary holds baby Jesus in a stable while a snake watches nearby
Photo credit: generated with AI 12/25/2023

With all the religious significance around Jesus’s birth (and rightfully so), it’s easy to forget that Mary was a very real teen mother who endured a very real labor, with everything a natural childbirth normally involves. While this is a longer piece than what will normally be here, my hope is that it might enrich your Christmas experience as together we marvel at both the divine wonder and at the sheer humanity of the night. (If you prefer to listen to the piece below, an excellent voice recording with closed captioning can be found here.)


Mary’s Story

It was no silent night.

Cries of pain every ten, nine, eight minutes pierced the darkness, punctuated by staccato, shallow rhythmic breaths. The wise midwives back home told birthing mothers these would help get them through each contraction with at least a little less pain.

But here in this dank cave, there was no midwife. Only the smell of sheep, shit, and the sweat of Mary’s labor.

There were no towels.

There was no basin of warm water.

There were no whispers of support from other women—her mother’s friends, women in her family—who instinctively knew when to massage her back and shoulders, when she needed support under her arms as she knelt and cried out, and when she just needed to be. They had been there themselves. They had seen dozens of non-silent nights like these.

But none of their comfort, none of their experience—none of it was there for her.

Her husband…good Lord, he wasn’t even her husband yet, was he? Oh how she loved him, but at that moment she would have traded him in a second for one of the women from Nazareth. There he stood, a nervous, immovable olive tree, not knowing the first thing about how to be helpful.

Shit. What was she going to do? She was all of thirteen, barely even able to get pregnant. Her periods had only started a bit more than a year ago, mere months before the angel’s appearance. She vividly remembered the the angel’s message to her, and her reaction: disbelief followed by questioning, and finally steely determination. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” she had said.

And she had meant it. Every bit of it.

That last thought snapped her back into the present. “Joseph!”

He jumped a little, as the authority in her voice was nothing he had ever heard from her before.

“Joseph, come here! Now!”

Obediently, Joseph made his way to his miraculous fiancée. As he drew near, he could see the resolve in her eyes and the corners of her mouth. “Your tunic. Tear it into strips.” Joseph began to protest, but Mary interrupted, calmly and firmly telling him, “The baby will need to be wiped clean. So will I. And the baby will need something to wear. Please start. Now. There’s not much time.” She grimaced as another contraction began, breathing again as she had seen other women breathe. “Stay strong, stay strong, stay strong,” she heard herself saying. To whom was this encouragement directed? Was it to herself? To Joseph? To the baby?

She glanced over at Joseph as the contraction subsided, and couldn’t help but smile. This poor man she loved so much—ever since the angel, he had just rolled with punch after punch. What other man would believe what she had asked him to believe? There had been plenty of questions and just as many tears from both of them, but ultimately, he had trusted her. And then when she began showing, he sent her to her cousin’s house so she wouldn’t have to face the judging stares, the possible accusations, or even the threat of stoning. He was such a good man.

Of course, her pregnancy hadn’t been the only issue. There had also been the problem of Bethlehem itself. It was relatively small, which normally she would have been thankful for. But it was also the hometown of King David, the greatest king in Israel’s history. Of course, everyone wanted to claim that they had at least a little Davidic blood in them. She had known right away that Bethlehem was going to be absolutely packed. Of course, because she could pretty much go into labor at any time, their travel preparations had taken longer than normal. As a result, they hadn’t begun their journey as early as they had wanted. On top of that, again because of her pregnancy, the journey itself had taken so much longer. She had walked eighty fucking miles with swollen ankles and a horribly aching back, all while her uterus was home to a seven-pound bundle of joy which seemed to know exactly where her bladder was and constantly tried to kick it.

When they had finally arrived, everywhere they could have possibly stayed was full. She was exhausted and just completely done, so when Joseph had come back from asking around and gingerly told her all he had been able to find was a room where animals were kept, she wasn’t even upset. She could tell the time was close, and to have a covered, private place was more important than how comfortable it may or may not have been.

Yes, Joseph was a good man, and she could already tell he was the type who would do everything in his power to care for his family. She was one of the lucky ones, because it didn’t always work out that way. Not with arranged marriages.

Here in Bethlehem, however, Mary could tell that he felt frustrated and incredibly guilty. He blamed himself for his lineage and the fact that they had even had to travel to Bethlehem in the first place. He blamed himself for not having all of their belongings ready quickly enough to get a head start traveling. He blamed himself for forcing her to walk because he didn’t own an animal to ride on and didn’t have the time or means to purchase one at the last minute. Even in their relatively short time together, Mary had gotten to know very well how his mind operated, and she could see on his face the relief he felt to finally be doing something proactive and useful, even if it was as simple as tearing strips of cloth.

Her thoughts were interrupted by another contraction, and she silently cursed for getting caught up in her head instead of paying attention to how long it had been since the last one. “Three minutes, my love,” Joseph called over to her as she groaned with the sheer force of her body’s determination to produce life.

“Be strong, be strong, be strong,” she thought to herself again. Mary had felt so strong visiting her cousin, comparing pregnancy stories, each realizing that the other was carrying a child already marked by God. It was during her visit with Elizabeth that the full magnitude of what was happening had hit her. Elizabeth had called her Theotokos—God-Bearer. She, this kid from Galilee, had been given the awesome responsibility of bearing the Divine. And if that was the way God worked, she had asked Elizabeth, what else might God do? Shatter the thrones of the powerful and lift up the lowly like herself? Would God reverse the places of the rich and hungry, giving to those who were without, and casting away those who hoarded what they had? God had chosen her, a God who made the last first and the first last, an empowering God, a God who was ready to use ordinary people like her to flip the tables of power. To Mary’s delight, rather than reacting with bewilderment, Elizabeth had joined right in with her younger cousin. “We are on the verge of something big,” Elizabeth had told her. And Mary had answered with the same indomitability she was currently summoning in the stable. “For once, no scribe, rabbi, or even the fucking high priest himself will be able to hide or explain away that it’s a woman making the miracle happen.”

“Making the miracle happen,” Mary murmured to herself, realizing that the latest contraction had ended. “Making the miracle happen.”

Suddenly, another contraction began and she had the overwhelming urge to push. For a moment, her uncertainty returned—was she ready for this? Would she be able to bring a life into the world so far away from home, surrounded by animals, without the comfort of wise women surrounding her, and without the guiding hand or calm voice of a midwife?

She desperately tried to remember the advice she had heard at other births. Some women tried to push too early and the midwife would tell them to wait, no matter what their body was trying to do—the fullness of time had not yet come. But how did they know? As both the pain and the urge to push continued to grow, Mary realized something. “God,” she exclaimed, “you are my midwife.”

This was no imperative. It was a realization.

Strengthened, she leaned her back against the wall with her feet against the floor, legs spread and knees up. Reaching forward, Mary felt between her legs. Her cervix was dilated to the point where…was that her baby’s head? No, it couldn’t be. Not yet.

She felt again. Yes, there it was! What had the midwives called it back home? Crowning?

Almost on cue, the next contraction began. “My child,” the Divine Midwife whispered in her ear. “You are not alone. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds you, women from every time and place. They will be holding you up, my child, as you do this miraculous thing.”

“Now push.”

Mary instinctively grabbed her legs below the knees, drawing them to her chest. As her pain grew stronger, she pushed with all the strength she could muster. An almost indescribable, primal sound arose from deep within her as she strained.

Mary knew that sound—she had heard it from other women, who had heard it from others, all the way back to Eve. She could feel them surrounding her—all her forebears in motherhood—just as the Divine Midwife had promised. Their strength became her strength as she pushed with all her might, beads of sweat forming on her forehead as she cried out from the pain and the pressure.

Suddenly, the pressure subsided as her baby boy’s head emerged. Letting go of her legs, she reached down, cradling his head in her hands while the contraction slowly subsided.

“Very good, my child,” intoned The Midwife. “What happens next will happen quickly. You will feel your son’s body turn. Do not pull on him, just let your body make the miracle happen.”

“Make the miracle happen,” Mary repeated.

“After he turns, one long last push will bring him into the world,” The Midwife continued. “Now, be ready.”

The contraction began. “Little pushes for now, my blessed child. Not too much. Just let his shoulders turn. Breathe, breathe…”

Suddenly, the company of sainted women surrounding Mary was breathing in time with her, inhaling traces of Eden, exhaling the breaths of women like Tamar, Hagar, Rachel, Dinah, and the countless others whose voices had been lost to the centuries.

Her hands still cradling the baby’s head, Mary did as the Divine Midwife had told her. She soon felt the baby’s shoulders turning.

“Okay, my child. One last, long push.”

Mary screamed as she pushed with every ounce of energy she had. She could feel the baby’s body move a little, but not nearly enough.

“Keep it up, child,” the Divine Midwife encouraged. “The reign of God is near. The One to defeat death is about to be born, right into your blessed hands.”

And with that, the baby’s shoulders pushed past the cervix.

Hands between her legs, back pressed against the wall, Mary grabbed her son as he entered the world he had created.

There was no crying. Why was there no crying? Mary quickly glanced downward. There, she saw the umbilical cord wrapped around her little boy’s neck like a serpent. And instead of the light brown color she had expected, his face was turning blue.

Without waiting for any direction, she lifted the baby slightly with one hand, and with the other expertly pulled the cord over her son’s head. Almost immediately, the color began to return to his face, and after a long, agonizing couple of seconds, he began to cry.

It was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.

“Well done, good and faithful servant,” whispered The Midwife.

Mary glanced over at the other side of the stable. She saw the grin on Joseph’s face, and in the light of the moon noticed he had tears glistening on his cheeks. But he wasn’t walking over yet, despite hearing the child’s cries. Mary smiled as she realized he was probably awaiting direction from her. This was the one situation where a woman had complete control, and she wasn’t ready to give that up quite yet.

Reaching forward between her legs, Mary began lifting her baby so she could hold him before realizing that the cord was still attached and that she had nothing with which to cut it.


While she knew that some women delayed the cord-cutting until the placenta naturally detached, Mary didn’t have that luxury where she was. She looked around her to find something, anything, that would help.

There, illuminated by the stars outside, a stray nail lay on the floor, partially covered by hay. Grabbing it, she brought it close to her face for a better look. Mary had already spent enough time with her husband-to-be that she immediately recognized it as Roman-made. While the nail wasn’t a perfect solution to her problem by any means, it looked like the best one available at the moment. “Heaven forbid anything about tonight should be normal,” she sardonically chuckled.

Leaning forward, she held the cord against the floor with one hand, and with the other tried to use the edge of the sharp end as a makeshift knife. It only took a few swipes before the cord began to give way. Mary sped up her pace as blood began to seep out. Finally, she had cut all the way through. Quickly setting down the nail, she tied the end of the cord still attached to her in a small knot and took a deep breath.

She could finally hold her baby.

Mary used her robe to wipe some of the blood and vernix off the baby as he cried and squirmed. Not too much—she wanted Joseph to feel useful when he eventually came over with his rags, but enough to help her feel a little more confident that he wasn’t going to slip out of her arms.

She cradled her newborn son to her chest, and slowly, his cries began to subside. Mary could feel him snuggling into the crook of her arm, and he almost immediately began rooting, his mouth blindly searching for her nipple.

She adjusted him, and holding one breast in her hand, guided his mouth. And in his very first miracle on earth, the baby almost immediately latched on.

The Divine Midwife silently looked on as this teenage girl, a child herself, fed the Almighty God with her own body.

Mary was finally about to call Joseph over to help finish cleaning the baby off and to begin wrapping him in the cloth bands when suddenly, she saw something black swishing in the straw.

She quickly realized it was a snake. As a little girl, sometimes snakes would wander into their house, often toward the cooking area where they could find warmth. From an early age, her mother had taught her how to identify them, so she would know which snakes she could just leave alone, and which were poisonous.

This one was a dangerous viper. And it was approaching her. If it bit her, she would almost certainly die. And what then of her baby? Still sitting on the floor like this, her little boy would be in danger too.

Without another thought, Mary stood up. Her legs were still shaking from the strain of childbirth, but she didn’t even notice as she watched the poisonous serpent approach. Even if God hadn’t entrusted her with this divine child, even if her boy wasn’t destined to grow up and change the world, she still would’ve burned with the same protective anger she felt at that moment. The serpent stopped right in front of her and began to raise its head to strike her ankle.

Without a sound, Mary lifted her foot and slammed her heel into the top of its head, crushing it against the floor. Putting all her weight on that heel, she swiveled her foot back and forth, feeling the inside of the viper’s head cracking and snapping. With a mother’s rage, she kept crushing it until the serpent’s tail lay motionless.

Mary kicked the carcass away and returned to her spot against the wall. With the confidence that comes when a person knows they’ve just done something significant, she called, “Joseph! Come meet your son!”

He who had been so patient ran to her, robes flapping. Joseph knelt beside Mary, eyes wet with tears. “I am so proud of you, darling,” he whispered, voice quivering. “You are the bravest woman I know.” Joseph paused, trying to find the right words. “And our baby…um, your baby…is so beautiful.”

Our baby,” Mary gently corrected him. “You are the one who will teach him Torah. You are the one who will pass your trade along to him. It doesn’t matter how the story began. You will love him as a father loves his son.”

Eyes, glistening with gratitude, Joseph stroked the baby’s head. Suddenly, he stopped and looked at her. “Mary, did I see you standing up earlier? What was it?”

“Oh, it was nothing,” she reassured him. “My legs were cramped. I needed to stretch them. Now, bring those rags over here so you can finish cleaning your son off. And make sure you save some—I’m going to be delivering the afterbirth soon.”

“The what? I thought you were all done with…this.” Joseph thought for a moment. “Isn’t that a job for a midwife? Do you need me to step away again until it’s…done?” He fidgeted.

Mary smiled again. Poor, adorable man whom she loved so much. He was so knowledgeable about so many things, but when it came to babies and especially childbirth, he was as clueless as most men she knew. “It’s okay, my love. Take your son.” She handed the baby to him. Still kneeling, Joseph gingerly cradled him.

“Am I doing it right?”

“You’re doing fine,” Mary reassured him. “Finish wiping him off, then wrap those cloth bands around him. And find someplace to lay him. I’ll stay here until I’m done.” Leaning back against the wall again, she sighed and took a moment for contemplation while she could. Looking around, she soaked in the entire scene: the animals, the hay, Joseph with the baby, the mixture of smells and sounds, their distance from home, the closeness of the women saints and the Divine Midwife, even the serpent whose head she had crushed beneath her heel.

Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

This was originally included as “Mary’s Story” in my book Imperfectly Perfect (2023).

About Matt Schur
After graduating with a B.A. in English from Truman State and an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Luther Seminary, Matt Schur spent years wandering in a vocational wilderness before finally discovering his calling— assisting and advocating for the marginalized and vulnerable. He currently lives out that call as a case manager and housing specialist for people experiencing homelessness. He also serves an ELCA campus ministry part-time as its music director and pianist, and has published two books of progressive Christian poetry: “Cross Sections” (2021) and “Imperfectly Perfect” (2023). His writing has been featured in “Valiant Scribe Literary Journal,” “Unlikely Stories,” and “Cathexis Northwest Press.” You can read more about the author here.

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