Nativity-rublev Joseph.  I’ve always found him extremely fascinating.  I guess that’s partly due to the fact that we’re told so little about him.  We know he was incredibly obedient to God.  He was present for Mary’s pregnancy, Jesus’ birth and childhood, but once Jesus grows up, he’s strangely absent.  The traditional reason is that he simply passed away.  Other renderings have him moving on to another wife and having other children in order to keep Mary pure.  Or perhaps in the end, his own doubt about the truthfulness of the virgin birth caught up with him.  Even in iconography, Joseph is sometimes rendered as a deeply troubled soul.  Rublev’s version of The Nativity has Joseph being fed lies about Mary’s virginity by Satan, here depicted as a withered old man.  We don’t why, but we know that he doesn’t play much of a role in the later part of Jesus’ life.

But what role did he play in Jesus’ early life; specifically in the beginning?  As I was meditating on the story of the first Advent, I was struck by what’s left unsaid within the birth narrative.  Particularly, the lack of detail about the birth itself.  Now I admit that probably is best left unsaid.  Birth is messy, painful, and doesn’t really make for good storytelling.  So the silence comes at no surprise.   But we do know where. We know that Jesus was born in a place where animals are keep.  This raises the question in my mind about who else was present?  Was it simply Mary and Joseph?  What about midwives?  There’s one apocryphal story that puts a midwife named Salome on the scene.  But who knows?

Even if Joseph was able to find a midwife at the last minute, and one that would be willing to follow him to a cave, Joseph would still be much more involved in the Mary’s labor and delivery than most fathers today.  Contrast Joseph’s story with the fact that most fathers aren’t usually even present at the moment of birth of their children.  That’s usually because they would either choose to stay in the waiting room until the OB tells them it’s all over, or because they aren’t permitted in the delivery room due to hospital policy (in recent years these policies have relaxed considerably).  I think this is where my fondness for Joseph lies.

I’m the father of four children, two of which were born at home, one in a birthing center, and one in the hospital.  My wife, herself a certified Doula, delivered all four “naturally.” I was her labor coach for all of them.  In our house, pregnancy and birth is a passion, not just for our own, but other mothers as well. We have a passion for helping women labor well.  Laboring well involves many factors.  One factor that  contributes to this is the husband’s involvement.

Birth is a time of great silence and separation.  What women experience cannot be shared by or communicated to men.  We can’t even pretend to understand labor pain. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be a faithful, supporting presence.

Nor can we understand the immense rush of joy (oxitocin) that a woman experiences when she holds her seconds-born child in her arms.  That, we can only watch in amazement.

Since there were no medical lawyers to conjure up absurd laws keeping Joseph waiting outside, I hope Joseph was fully involved in supporting Mary as she brought forth the savior of the world.  Unfortunately we aren’t are given any details.  Had we been, I believe that the church wouldn’t be so anemic in it’s theology of birth.

What I mean is this: the church and her theologians have had a lot of great things to say about life, death, contraception, abortion, sex, IVF, etc.  We have the language and the ethics for making babies, not killing them, and helping them die well when they’ve grown old.  However, the church is completely silent about the nine months after conception, and even more (if that’s possible) silent about the hours of labor leading to the moment of birth.

I believe this silence has been a major reason for the medicalization of the birth.  Now, before I get a whole bunch of hateful comments, let me explain that I’m not against “hospital births” as opposed to “home births.”  My wife and I are outspoken advocates for the latter, but we have seen and experienced the necessity of the former.  Where I believe our society is failing women (and their partners) is in making them believe in the normalcy of medicine’s role in birth.   In the last few years, the number one reason for hospital admittance has been labor and delivery.  The problem, however, is that pregnancy is not a sickness that needs to be cured.  It is not a disease, nor is the pain that is experienced a suffering that needs to be remedied.

Most of all, under “low risk” circumstances, labor and delivery is not a process that needs intervention.  There are times when intervention is needed, and I’m glad that medicine can do what it can do, and do it well.  But too often the “cascade of interventions” happens unnecessarily.  But doctors and hospitals work on a time-table that doesn’t always sync with nature’s processes. Moreover, they are the ones who believe they wield ultimate power and have most fully bought into modernity’s ideology of complete control.

Again, I’m grateful for hospitals, but one of the main reasons that I personally am an advocate for  homebirths, in particular, is the community that it allows to be created.  Birth is an incredibly intimate experience and one which revolves completely around the needs of the mother.  In our experience, Laura had complete control over everything.  The few of us that were present, by her own invitation, were able to give her full support, love, and comfort. Most of all, since I was able to play an important role in her process, I believe our marriage is stronger because  of it.

There’s more that needs to be said on this topic and I’m currently working on a series of essays that I hope will begin to break the church’s silence on the issue.  The church needs a theology of birth.  The church needs to find a language that helps women labor well.  It needs this not because I want most women to have homebirths.  That’s not the ultimate goal.  But because birth is an important moment in a woman’s life, and the church has no idea what role it plays in her discipleship.  Birth is a milestone in a couple’s marriage, and the church lacks a theology of marriage strong enough to give voice to the husband’s role in the process.

Most of all, because God himself “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.”  What that means is that pregnancy, labor, and delivery have been redeemed.  {That which is not assumed is not sanctified}

This is why I wish the Bible would have been more detailed, especially about Joseph.  I can speculate that Joseph would have set the example for husbands to follow in how to support his wife while she gives birth.  This Advent season, apart from Christ, Joseph is the one character who has most caught my attention.

And now a word from Monty Python: