“[They asked her,] ‘You who are highly favoured, tabernacle of the Most High, unblemished, we, all the apostles ask you… Tell us how you conceived of the incomprehensible, or how you carried him who cannot be carried, or how you bore so much greatness.’
But Mary answered, ‘Do not ask me concerning this mystery. If I begin to tell you, fire will come out of my mouth and consume the whole earth[.]”
-Gospel of Bartholomew 2:4-5
(Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. I, p. 492)
In this chapter we come to the glorious mystery of the Incarnation. Despite the way Christmas pageants harmonize the biblical narrative, only Matthew and Luke contain birth stories, and they don’t necessarily agree on the details.
The Quran also contains a birth narrative for Jesus. In Surah 19, Mary, having already spoken with Gabriel, ventures out into the desert, and while there, goes into labour. She leans against a palm tree and wails:
“Alas! I wish I had died before this, and was a thing long forgotten!” (19:23)
A voice responds,
“Do not grieve! Your Lord has provided a stream at your feet. And shake the trunk of this palm tree towards you, it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon you. So eat and drink, and put your heart at ease.” (19:24-26a).
The Quran claims that the angelic voice rises up “from beneath” Mary, which leads Helminski to connect it to a verse in Surah al-Bayyinah which refers to rivers flowing beneath the Garden of Paradise. Mystics also say that the palm tree, barren and dead when Mary came, sprouted again when she touched it.
This story echoes an account in the Proto-evangelium of James in which Mary sits to rest on a rock on the way to Bethlehem, and a spring of clear water bursts forth. This place became the site of the ancient Church of Kathisma, which seems to have contained both altar and mihrab, welcoming Christians and Muslims to offer prayers to Mary there.
“In both the Quran and in the Bible the account of Jesus’s birth, whether in a stable, in a cave, or in the desert under a palm tree, is related to have taken place in a lowly, simple place, with nature awake and aware, the stars witnessing with their light, or the fertile grace of the palm with water bubbling up from beneath her to quench Beloved Mary’s thirst.”
These two stories of erupting springs also mirror the story of Hagar and Ishmael, rescued by angels in the wilderness. That spring still exists to this day in the city of Mecca, which grew up around it. Pilgrims on the hajj drink from it as part of their rituals.
In all three Abrahamic traditions, the bubbling up of “living” water is a symbol of God’s abundant grace. It’s an image the adult Jesus uses when he speaks with the Samaritan woman:
“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4: 14b)
“In the Quranic birth scene, God miraculously provides food and water to Mary (as had been bestowed upon her when she was in the sanctuary of the Temple) just after she expresses a desire for her own death. For many mystics…Mary is an example of how we must die to our limited self, empty out our own egoistic desires or inclinations, that we might be filled with God’s abundant, beautiful sustenance, with the breath of God[.]”
“Our body is like Mary.
Each of us has a Jesus inside.
If a pain and a yearning shows up inside us,
the Jesus of our soul is born.”
-Rumi, tr. Omid Safi