I love this painting by Caravaggio of Mary asleep, with the baby Jesus in her arms, as Joseph holds a score for an angelic violinist. I love it because of the calm eye of the donkey, the weary look on Joseph's face, and the presence of God (as represented by the angel) as comforter and purveyer of beauty in the midst of a refugee family's all to real and present nightmare. I love it because Mary's face is serene and the baby clearly thriving on her milk and his family's love. And as I contemplate this artwork I find myself reflecting on what this time in Mary's life must have been like.
I do not know the specific's of postpartum ritual in the 1st century. But, I imagine that in her hometown Mary would have been surrounded by women, quick to offer advice and assistance. When labor pain set in, other women, her mother perhaps, would have gathered around her and guided her through each contraction. As she anticipated putting the baby to breast for the first time she would be surrounded by other nursing mamas--eager to help her learn.
I do know, that in her immediate postpartum period (based on the purity laws regarding women's discharge...lochia in the weeks following the birth) that Mary would have been given the opportunity for rest and a lying in with her new babe. Further, before Mary rejoined the wider community with her baby she would likely have taken a ritual bath for cleansing--a bath that (anthropologically speaking) would have represented her own birth into motherhood and a new status in the community.
But, instead, Mary and her family find themselves fleeing the threat of death...and they go seeking asylum in a land and a place far from the comforts of their home. Instead of a ritual bath Mary's transition into motherhood is marked by the crossing of a desert. Instead of the firm advice of experienced mamas and the chatter of her sisters, Mary sleeps to the sounds of the donkey asleep on his feet after a weary day's journey. Instead of a time of watching her child grow secure in the love of his extended family she faces a time of literal alienation as she and her family become strangers in a strange land.
It's truly amazing to me to reflect on what Mary was experiencing while standing on this side of my own child's birth. I am struck by her strength but also find myself imagining a period of profound fear, anxiety and loneliness. "Blessed are you amongst women..." truly.