The fourth week of Advent is here (already!). As we near Christmas the reading from this past Sunday and today focus on Mary's conception of Jesus and then going to serve her cousin Elizabeth. Fresh from the Annunciation with the tiny zygote of Our Lord within her womb, she leaves quickly, "with haste" say the Scriptures, to the hill country of Judah.
And it is here in Scripture that we see Our Lady the Doula.
This isn't some theological mind stretch. The Greek text used by Luke that Mary uses to describe herself when consenting to become the Mother of God is quite literally the Greek word doula. "Behold, I am the doulē of the Lord," she says. The word doula comes from the Greek language meaning female slave or servant. It is also translated as handmaiden. Mary identifies herself literally as a doula within Scripture - the handmaiden or slave of the Lord - who then goes to help her pregnant cousin give birth. She goes with haste after receiving her own divine mission to serve her cousin Elizabeth, who is soon to give birth, fulfill hers. Fulton Sheen says that "The handmaid of the Lord becomes the handmaid of Elizabeth." The doula of the Lord becomes the doula of Elizabeth.
Our Lady was quite literally just given the task of bringing God to earth. She was hailed using the greeting reserved for those of the highest rank and told she was full of grace. She is made the Mother of the Messiah, the new Ark of the Covenant, the new Temple containing the Presence of the Lord. Rather than basking in that honor, she instead calls herself a servant, a doula, and makes haste to go serve. In describing Mary's visit, Sheen says that "But here, after the honor is received, Mary, instead of standing on her privilege, becomes a servant-nurse of her aged cousin and, in the midst of that service, sings a song in which she calls herself the Lord's handmaid - or better still the bondwoman of God - a slave who is simply His property and one who has no personal will except His own. Selflessness is shown as the true self." The Queen Mother, blessed among all women and who all generations shall call blessed, chooses not to be served but to serve. Sounds like a foreshadowing of her own Son's rule, right? He goes on, "She, who is to bear Him Who will say: "I came not to be ministered unto but to minister" now ministers unto her cousin."
"Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home." Luke 1:56
Mary goes not just to help her pregnant cousin beforehand but it's likely she went to also be there to assist during and after her birth, something common to most all cultures and times until our modern mere century-old migration of birth to the hospital setting. It was the women of the community who would go to assist another woman during her time before, during, and after birth. It was the women who served. It was the women who provided the physical, emotional, medical, and spiritual support to their fellow sister undergoing the rite of birth and the entrance into motherhood. It isn't far fetched that Mary herself, there for three months, was also going to do just that.
She, the Theotokos, wasn't just going to serve as so many other women have served before, however. Sure, if she was there I have no doubt she would have been willing to do her part carrying water, cleaning rags, bringing Elizabeth some almonds or dates, and providing a hand to squeeze. However she was there literally in her very body bringing the Redeemer of all creation into a birth, one of only three births we celebrate within the liturgical year. She, who bears Him who will lay down His life for the world, assists as Elizabeth lays down her life for the Baptist.
By her mere presence she bore The Presence and sanctified that room and time of birth. Doubtless the others, save perhaps Elizabeth, were unaware of the magnitude of her company. She came without fanfare but she came carrying within her the New Adam to those women keenly and viscerally aware of the effects of the Fall, one of them quite literally bearing the pains of childbirth in their midst. Her presence there is a glimpse of the desire of our Lord to redeem all things and make them new. This unborn Child present in the birth room would in thirty three years time suffer and lay down His own life, bloody and broken, that He might also bring life into the world, this time, eternal. Elizabeth's birth pangs become a small foreshadowing of His eventual total and complete self-sacrifice to bring eternal life to His children. It is this Paschal Mystery that redeems every birth, allowing each and every mother on earth the invitation to herself participate in the salvation story.
As self-proclaimed doula, the likely birth doula to Elizabeth, and first among believers, she can then be considered the first Christian doula. She serves selflessly and faithfully, offering the perfect model of feminine genius to those of us called to imitate in service. She receives, bears, and witnesses Life to the world in her very essence but also then offers herself continually at the service of other new life. In her, the modern doula can see the doula par excellence, the doula to which all who bear the name should aspire. It is because the doula is called to be at the service of womanhood, motherhood, and life that the increasingly popular notion of a "full-spectrum" (i.e. abortion) doula is so hideously twisted. One who serves motherhood and life can not stand witness and even support its willed termination. (In Scripture it is actually the dragon, the symbol of the evil one, that waits at the womb to destroy while the Lady adorned with the stars is the protector of life.) It is she who every doula can call out to for aid in service of motherhood.
On a related note, I don't think it's coincidence that the Solemnity of the Annunciation falls smack dab in the middle of World Doula Week (March 22-28). I have a feeling that was a little touch of God, not at all intended by the founders! But how incredibly fitting and providential that it is so.
It's interesting to note that ancient iconography of the Nativity of Jesus often shows a midwife and/or servant women (i.e. doulas) present at that birth as well. It is highly likely that Mary herself accepted the service of other women at the time of Christ's birth and after. (What I would give to spend just a few moments in their sandals!) She who served also allowed others to serve her. It's a beautiful portrayal of the feminine genius, an example to all women after of supporting other women as they bring life and creativity into the world.
So no, a doula isn't just for "those New Age natural birthy type people," like I've heard said. The idea of a doula is astonishingly Christian. A doula is for any woman who decides that she wants extra support during one of the most intimate and theologically profound moments of her life. A doula is for any mother who recognizes the beauty and strength of the feminine genius and desires that unique heart of service for her own birth. A doula is for any Elizabeth who would welcome a Mary.
Our Lady the Doula, pray for us.