November 2017

Hidden figures in Bethlehem

A recent trip to the cinema saw me quite by accident stumble across one of the most uplifting movies of 2017, and strangely, it got me thinking about Advent, writes Natalie Acton.

By Natalie Acton

A recent trip to the cinema saw me quite by accident stumble across one of the most uplifting movies of 2017, and strangely, it got me thinking about Advent.

The movie Hidden Figures tells the untold story of three African-American women who were the brilliant scientific and mathematical minds working behind the scenes at NASA during the space race in the 1960s. The significant contribution of these “hidden figures” to the launch into orbit of astronaut John Glenn has largely remained in the background of history, with the credit for this achievement awarded prominently to the male astronauts and scientists who worked on this project.

Telling the stories of these unsung heroes draws our attention to a bias throughout history, especially in fields such as science, where the celebration of women’s achievements are largely excluded, or too often attributed to male colleagues. Throughout her studies, science historian Margaret Rossiter found this pattern of bias to be so common that she named it “the Matilda effect”, after American suffragette and feminist critic Matilda J. Gage.

However, the case of the “invisible woman” is not just an historical phenomenon. Unfortunately, still today, women are often absent from significant representation in corporate, church and political spheres, in the media, and in participation in education, especially in the developing world. Journalist Karen Sands reflected on the impact of this in a Huffington Post article last year entitled “The invisible woman”, suggesting that when the contributions of women are not seen and heard in the public sphere, their participation can be further limited because women become discouraged and so do not put themselves forward for opportunities.

It was this idea of “hidden figures” that was playing on my mind as I opened the packaging of our nativity scene in readiness for its annual display in our family room. As I unpacked the characters from their box to place them fan-shaped across the face of the stable, I noticed that this scene contained only one woman. In this presentation of the nativity, Mary stands as the sole female, surrounded by a host of male characters. I began to wonder about the “hidden figures” of this story and how far removed this was from my own experiences of childbirth and motherhood.

The American biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey, in his book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, confirms that in the custom of the day, as Mary prepared to birth her child, the room would have been cleared of men, with the local midwife and other women of the village supporting her throughout. After the birth, Bailey says Mary would have been surrounded by these women who would have attended to her, passing on their knowledge of the care of a little one, and ensuring that she was well looked after in her new role as mother.

Bailey suggests that Luke’s Gospel provides insight as to the quality of the hospitality and care for Mary. As the shepherds leave the holy family they are reported to “praise God for all that they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). Bailey notes that should the shepherds have found Mary alone, unsupported and in squalid conditions, instead of praising God, they may have, as was their custom, invited Mary, Joseph and their baby home so that their wives could take care of them.

This image of Mary in the company of wise, competent women bonded by community and shared experience, capably supporting the arrival of new life in this profound moment in history, sits in stark contrast to the nativity scenes that are often created in our churches, shopping centres and Christmas pageants.

In my own experience of childbirth, while my husband was actively involved in the birth of each of our children, it was my women friends, my sisters and my mother who gathered with me to celebrate each impending arrival. It was this collective of women who visited me in hospital and home, instinctively attending to my needs, offering me both practical and emotional support. It was these women who came bearing “gifts” of hot meals, nursing pads, words of encouragement and cups of tea, supporting both me and my family over those exhausting and uncertain first few weeks.

One review of the movie Hidden Figures suggests a significant feature that sets it apart from other untold stories of extraordinary people is that community is integral to the story. While this is a tale of individual achievement, perhaps the more compelling aspect of the story is the manner in which these accomplishments are made. These three women, while individually gifted, are generous with their friends; they encourage each other, are dignified in the face of injustice, and patient with the progress of others as they constantly encounter the prejudices inherent in their society. There is a sense in the story’s unfolding that these women know there is more at stake than their sole success, and an understanding that when one woman makes progress, to a degree, it allows all women to rise.

In the nativity scene Mary stands alone as one who has been selected for great things in the unfolding of God’s kingdom. Our attention is drawn away from that graced moment in the generosity of women, of patience, of vulnerability, of sacred waiting and of knowing that is resonant with the human experience of childbirth across many times and cultures. Without the image of the collective contribution of the gathering of women in the birth of the Messiah, we perhaps miss one of the most integrally human and at once divine parts of the story – the arrival of God, of love come to meet us, brought humbly forth in a climate of both intimacy and community. These “hidden women” of Bethlehem are active participants in the birthing anew of God’s promise to “bring good news to the poor, set free the oppressed, and proclaim liberty to captives” (Luke 4:18-19).

Due to the times of year that my babies were born, I have had the privilege of being pregnant over the Advent season. At these times, as I’ve reflected on the experiences of Mary and my own physical experience of this new life within, of hope and of promise, I have experienced a deepened appreciation of the God-given giftedness of this dimension of my womanhood and of the potency of the season’s invitations.

But as time has gone on and my babies have become teens, I now am drawn during Advent, in this time of waiting, to reflect beyond to the “hidden figures” in my life – the many women who, through their wisdom, their selfless example, their generous encouragement, and their everyday challenges, are midwives and companions to me in my journey of faith.

I’m also drawn in this time of Advent – of God’s “coming” – to give thanks for the women who continue to work collectively and bravely with those on the margins so that all women may rise: to those who work against injustice; who comfort the distressed; who challenge prejudice, violence and environmental destruction; who every day attend to the birthing of the kingdom in their time and place.

Remarkably, they do this quietly, patiently, persistently – and so often, “hidden”.

Natalie Acton

Natalie Acton is Director of Operations for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has worked in a variety of roles within the Catholic church in the areas of faith and ministry formation, community engagement, operations, leadership and governance. Natalie has undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in theology and is currently completing postgraduate studies in law.

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