Fr. Frank Breen, MM, reflects on the challenging conditions surrounding Jesus' birth and on the challenges facing single mothers in developing countries today.
In the readings on and around Christmas, we read of an unmarried woman becoming pregnant with a son who will be a light in a land of gloom and of a couple taking a long journey on foot from one obscure place to another in the last weeks of the woman's pregnancy. They are unable to find any decent shelter and have to lay the baby to sleep in the manger reserved for domestic animals. In Matthew’s Gospel they are forced to become refugees, as they are in danger from an insecure, deranged tyrant.
There are many characters cited in these stories: a determined woman, a just husband, astrologers who saw a message of the salvation of the world in the birth of a child, shepherds, and even an innkeeper who did his best to find a place for a homeless couple to stay. In the account of the birth itself, little attention is paid to the child; his role will come later.
The stories tell us that the child was born in a world of danger, inequality, dehumanizing poverty, and the repressive forces of an imperial system that existed only to benefit those at the top of the hierarchical system. The Roman Empire did not exist to serve the poor. For some reason God chose to enter the human condition in this context, implying that the world can be reconciled and transformed from within even these conditions.
I would like to focus on the woman, though: a pregnant, unmarried teenager, in one of the poorest outposts in human history. Normally, in such conditions the woman would die in childbirth and her child would probably die before the age of five, most likely in the first year after birth. It is estimated that there are 650 million women in the world today who were married before the age of 18 and that 15 million adolescent girls have been sexually abused, nine million this year alone. Fortunately, the maternal mortality rate has been going down from 2000 to 2017, but it is feared that the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed that progress.
Can the divine be manifested in such a situation? A teenage girl getting pregnant suffers not only from a physical standpoint, but would also be the brunt of disparaging whisperings and comments. And often the children of single mothers suffer stigma in relations with other children. Despite this, there are inspiring examples of the divine being manifested in unexpected places, such as in a poor neighborhood in Kenya that I am familiar with.
There is a group of single women and single mothers in a factory town near Nairobi, Kenya who are now meeting regularly to discuss their situations, find ways to give mutual moral and spiritual support, and to take steps to raise their children to be credits to their families, communities, and nation. While these women do not have very much money, at least they do not live in a slum, and so they can actually dream of a better future. The women eagerly seek advice how they can raise their children, improve their situations and hopefully facilitate transformational change in society.
So, can good things come from poor, single mothers in a developing country?
There are many organizations working to advance the status of women in society, including governmental and nongovernmental organizations; the United Nations, through its department called UN Women; and the Catholic Church, through diocesan departments of women’s affairs. These organizations are assisting women through such means as job training, including online digital training; advocating for universal healthcare, paid maternity leave and flexible hours of employment; expanding programs supporting female entrepreneurship; and pushing for greater female presence in governmental positions, such as judiciaries, local government, and in national parliaments.
Today we recall that a woman in a poor, unknown country gave birth two thousand years ago to our universal Savior. So too can women living in similar conditions today contribute to their communities in a way that is essential for making our world a true human family, living at peace with one another.
Holy Family icon by Kelly Latimore.