Tuesday 17 December 2019

Woman: The Tale of a Wise Woman

There’s a commonly shared piece of visual humour which crops up on social media at this time of the year: an observation that if the new-born baby Jesus and his parents been visited by three wise women, instead of three wise men, they would have offered something more practical than Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. It appears on images such as these:

Aside from the Mary, women are conspicuous by their absence from the Christmas story, although not from other events in the life of Jesus as related in the Bible. Whoever or whatever we perceive him to be, Jesus of Nazareth clearly held women in high regard, which is more than can be said for the religion espoused by most of his followers over the subsequent 2000 years.

So no wise women at the Nativity, other than in humorous cartoons? Well hang on, take a look at some Nativity scenes and there is indeed another woman in the stable at Bethlehem. I was looking the other day at the beautiful nativity figures used by my own Parish church, St Michael’s Kirkham, Lancashire, England. And there, next to the familiar Holy Family is another, unfamiliar woman:

Who is she? A discreet young woman, carrying what looks like a vessel of water, her head bowed as if to shun the limelight. Such a figure is sometimes depicted on nativity scenes, but not very often. The conventional interpretation is that she is the Innkeeper’s wife - although why not just a (female) innkeeper? There is no reference in the Bible to an innkeeper, and the invention of such a person and a wife probably owes more to the need to create parts for both genders in nativity plays performed by children.

Either way, this woman looks to be doing what women so often do: dealing with the practicalities of life while men make lots of fuss and noise without actually doing anything very useful.

So is this figure the elusive Wise Woman? Well, some have suggested that the Innkeeper’s wife in Nativity scenes is acting as a doula or even a midwife – bringing much-needed practical help, experience, reassurance and water to the cold and draughty stable, having earlier acted as a birth partner to Mary while Joseph fainted in the hay. The word midwife is derived from the old English Mitweib, meaning simply “with woman” (hence the fallacy of trying to change the gender of the word midwife to apply to male practitioners of the role), and the Innkeeper’s wife is certainly fulfilling the need for a female companion to the new mother – in the case of Mary, a young, unmarried, frightened refugee mother, coping with labour and childbirth in unimaginably difficult circumstances.

So perhaps we should refer to this female in the nativity scene as a midwife - but is she a wise woman? Well if we look at the French word for midwife, we can call her both a midwife and a wise woman. Look up the French for a midwife and you’ll see that it's the delightful term sage-femme”. And what does “sage-femme” literally mean? Yes, you’ve guessed it - wise woman.

So there you have it. There may well have been wise men, possibly a whole gang of them (nowhere in the Bible does it say there were three wise men), but they arrived 12 days late and landed the refugee couple with some very nice but frankly rather useless perfume and jewellery. But all along there was a wise woman in the background, quietly helping Mary to recover from an uncomfortable birth and to look after her very important but vulnerable new arrival.

The Wise Woman, far left
We all know that one wise woman can often achieve more than a whole army of not-so-wise men.

I dedicate this tale to some very wise women: my wise wife, my two wise daughters and the many wise women whom I am fortunate to count as dear friends. We’d be lost without you.

And a song title? How about John Lennon's Woman his ode to the folly of men and the wisdom of women, released so poignantly just after his murder 40 years ago.

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