The new-to-me story of Anastasia and Salome

I posted a quote the other day from The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names by EG Withycombe stating that Anastasia “in medieval legend was attached to the Virgin’s midwife.” Which basically blew my mind. I’m not unaware of the Nativity story, you know? And yet I’d never once even considered the idea that Our Lady had a midwife. On the one hand — wasn’t Jesus’ birth miraculous, “without any violation to her physical, external virginity. As the Fathers of the Church explained, as ‘light passes through glass without harming the glass’, so Jesus was born with Mary’s Virginity ‘in tact’, that is with the preservation of her physical virginity“? So, you know, what would a midwife do? But then, as this possibility presented itself, I thought, surely it does make sense that Our Lady would have a midwife, especially if she and/or St. Joseph was/were unaware of how the birth would proceed. And midwives do more than just catch the baby, don’t they? It makes perfect sense that Our Lady would have women attend her, to help her through labor, to wipe her brow, to soothe St. Joseph. If I’m suggesting a scene that doesn’t fit with Church tradition, please tell me!

It seems the apocryphal Gospel of James is the source of the story of Our Lady’s midwife:

19. And I [St. Joseph] saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither are you going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said unto me: Are you of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said to me: Is she not your wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit.

And the midwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things— because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His motherMary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight …

That midwife has, according to some (here, here), traditionally been called Anastasia. The reading continues:

And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth— a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.

20. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mineunbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for You know, O Lord, that in Your name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Your hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord has heard you. Put your hand to the infant, and carry it, and you will have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things you have seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.

Straightforward enough, though the Gospel of James has always been a mystery to me — are we to consider it to have some authority or not? Fortunately, I came across a note about that, when I was looking up Sts. Anne and Joachim, as I thought they too had been part of the same writing:

Tradition nevertheless, grounded on very old testimonies, very early hailed Saints Joachim and Anne as the father and mother of the Mother of God. True, this tradition seems to rest ultimately on the so-called “Gospel of James”, the “Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary”, and the Pseudo-Matthew, or “Book of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Childhood of the Saviour”; and this origin is likely to rouse well-founded suspicions. It should be borne in mind, however, that the apocryphal character of these writings, that is to say, their rejection from the canon, and their ungenuineness do not imply that no heed whatever should be taken of some of their assertions; side by side, indeed, with unwarranted and legendary facts, they contain some historical data borrowed from reliable traditions or documents; and difficult though it is to distinguish in them the wheat from the tares, it would be unwise and uncritical indiscriminately to reject the whole.

I could be wrong, but it seems then that there’s nothing wrong with considering the story of Anastasia and Salome. Even if the details aren’t quite true, they might be, and they proclaim the miraculous birth of Jesus.

Moving on from that, there seems to be some confusion as to who had the withered hand upon examining Mary’s virginity — the passage above says it was Salome; the abstract for this article notes that, “In an early fifteenth-century French book of hours (Getty MS 57), St Anastasia, born without hands, kneels in worshipful adoration with Mary and Joseph before the newborn Christ Child. According to apocrypha, Anastasia believed in the miraculous divine birth, and when she held the Christ Child in her arms, God rewarded her faith by sending an angel bringing new, beautiful hands … This article examines the iconography of the Getty Nativity and observes that the Anastasia legend parallels the apocryphal narrative of the midwife Salome. ”

So a little confusion there, furthered by St. Anastasia’s feast day being the same as Christmas; there’s also some speculation that the midwife Salome may be the same who is known as St. Mary Salome (and if so, what a great connection that she was one of the first to see the newborn Savior, and was also there at His Resurrection).

Had any of you known any of this? Do any of you have further insight into or knowledge about this story and these women? Does this story make the names Anastasia and Salome more or less appealing?

13 thoughts on “The new-to-me story of Anastasia and Salome

  1. Fascinating! It seems like some kind of Catholic cultural lore that maybe had some truth buried in it? I do know (well, not that I am a scholar), that we are allowed to believe conflicting things about Jesus’s birth. We are not obligated to believe Mary’s labor and birth were painless, although it would be fitting to believe that. So my understanding is that the Church doesn’t really claim to officially know what Jesus’s birth was like. It could very well have been painful and typical like the ones the rest of us experience, or it could have been painless (some women experience little to no pain anyway, and they aren’t the Immaculate Conception, so why not?) or perhaps even painless and somewhat mystical like this account? I also think it’s reasonable to believe or accept that Mary was attended by women, although it’s also “okay” to believe she wasn’t (like in the movie, “The Nativity Story” when Joseph delivers).

    I think true or not, it does add an interesting religious element to the name “Anastasia.” And as a side note, stuff like this draws me to the Middle Ages. What a fascinating culture it must have been to live in (well, in Europe at least!).

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    • Seriously, who are these women who have little to no pain?? I am not one of them. I actually do have a friend like that, she described her labor pains as like menstrual cramps. I don’t even know how that happens.

      I hadn’t previously considered that there are two issues — Mary’s perpetual virginity, even during birth; and whether or not she experienced pain. I knew that it’s held that Jesus was not born vaginally, thus preserving Mary’s virginity, but pain? I guess I might have thought she might have had pain or she might not have. I really liked this article that I linked to in the post (http://www.motherofallpeoples.com/2012/10/marys-miraculous-birth-of-jesus-the-catholic-churchs-perennial-tradition/), and it actually addresses the issue of pain:

      “Patristic Tradition and specific papal and magisterial references … [including the] Catechism of the Council of Trent, that Mary gave birth “without experiencing…any sense of pain” (RC 50); and the Church’s Liturgy, which states, “She who had given him birth without the pains of childbirth…”(BVM Collection of Masses, p. 117).”

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      • I am the woman that actually needs the epidural to progress because my pain literally stalls labor… yes, the pain literally stresses my body out that much. So yes, who are these women? 🙂 I will have to read that article! I wasn’t aware that Mary’s virginity was tied to not having a vaginal birth too? I always assumed “virginity” simply referred to the fact that she and Joseph remained celibate. Interesting!

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      • I know, that was a shocker to me too! Yup, for Mary virginity=total intactment. When I first learned that, I thought it couldn’t possibly be right.

        I hear you re: epidurals! I’m so glad you are like that too! My last labor, my blood pressure was spiking so high they were worried I was becoming preeclamptic … as soon as they gave me the spinal (the epidural *didn’t work*…!!) my blood pressure came right down.

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  2. This is so interesting!!! I love reading stuff like this. I really do think it is fine and good, as long as we keep in mind that it not necessarily true. Have you ever read the accounts of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich? They are also fascinating. (She did not see a midwife with Mary). From a naming perspective, there is some interesting information there too. She always saw Veronica as originally being named Seraphia (so beautiful!) and the bridegroom of Cana was a Nathanael. Those are the two that stuck with me the most. Now I am itching to read the gospel of James! 🙂

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  3. Holly, you and my mom think alike! I was telling her last night about this post, and her immediate response was to tell me that Bl. Anne Catherine didn’t tell of a midwife at Jesus’ birth. I haven’t read her accounts, but I’d like to — your comment has bumped them up my list! Thanks!

    And oh goodness, I love the name bit (of course) — Seraphia for Veronica is beautiful!! And I love Nathanael, how cool. I’ve never really considered the perspectives of anyone else at Cana but Jesus, Mary, and the servants — I love being introduced to a different perspective.

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  4. I agree! This is certainly fun stuff…fun to think and imagine about given that we are talking about the birth of Our Lord Jesus…can you imagine the number of angels called to service at that time…wow! The Shepherds were amazingly chosen for that beyond-words event. I would like to add that the Mystical City of God by Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda, a 17th century Spanish nun, is a book presented as “the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as revealed by Our Lady.” Having appreciated this book to a great degree for more than 30 years now, I find that it never ceases to amaze me how unbelievably structured and worded the sentences are…easy to believe the words came straight from Heaven. The book carries an imprimatur, and is presented as spiritually encouraging. I admire your respectful and humble approaches, Sarah and Holly. I, too, have appreciated the protection of our Holy Mother Church in her effort to protect us in the Truth.
    I love “light passes through glass without harming the glass.” I had never heard the Anastasia-Salome story…so interesting. I love Seraphia…

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  5. Forgot to say the reason for mentioning Venerable Mother Mary of Agreda’s book…it contains an account of Jesus’ birth that is beyond imagination.

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  6. […] Pope St. Martin I seems to be the most famous — he “suffered exile and humiliation for his defense of orthodoxy in a dispute over the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures” — and his feast day is April 13. I can’t remember now how I stumbled upon this info today, but I like it. (Incidentally, he was named successor to Pope Theodore I — also a name I didn’t remember as being papal!) (Oh I remember how I came across it — he was pope during the First Lateran Council, when he defined the three-pronged dogma of Mary’s virginity — “before, during, and after Jesus’ birth”) (“during” of course referring to the miraculous nature of his birth as “light passes through glass without harming the glass” and Mary remained “intact,” which we talked more about here). […]

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