While some people call this time of the year the “Christmas Season” it is technically Advent. For those who follow or are familiar with the liturgical calendar, Advent is the season in which the church looks forward to the coming of Christmas, the birth of Christ. During the four weeks prior to Christmas day, churches across the world will read scriptures and sing songs expressing the hope that the Christ will be born. It is a time when the church looks forward to celebrating the first coming of Jesus, as an infant, incarnate. In some churches a manger is positioned at the front. But the baby Jesus is not placed in the manger because it is not yet Christmas. Christ has not yet come. But on Christmas Eve/Day the babe will be placed in the manger as part of the celebration of Messiah’s coming. Until then, however, the manger remains empty.
But in the midst of the celebration there are those who find Advent and Christmas a struggle. It is a painful reminder that for them the manger in their own home is empty. It is empty not because they are not religious. Not because they refuse to participate, but because they are unable to fill that manger. They are among the six million couples a year that learn that they are unable to have children. And the irony of the season is not lost on them. As the church celebrates God’s gift to the world, a baby, they are keenly aware that there is a level at which they cannot participate in the Advent celebration. The coming of the Messiah is somehow dulled by their realization that God’s gift seems to have skipped over them. There is a feeling of disconnect for them as they hear the promises of Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:29-33 read in church, all of which speak of a child, of joy, of great things to come. And yet, the childless couple is unable to identify. Add to this the overwhelming focus on children at Christmas (a good thing), and the season is more crushing than uplifting.
The Bible is of little help to the childless couple. A quick survey of the Bible reveals a number of stories about childless couples. Most of them focus on the woman’s inability to conceive. All of them, without exception, find resolution when God opens the womb. Quite often the focus of readers, teachers and preachers of the Bible is on the divine intervention that finally allows the woman to bear a child and bring to fruition a previous promise made by God. But the absence of stories about promises to those who remain childless creates a painful cycle for the couple. The story of the Christian Bible focuses on the promise and birth of the baby. But there is no place in the Bible for the couple to turn to find comfort when their own manger remains empty.
Ministers will often recognize the pain that a Mother’s day or Father’s day celebration can cause to a childless couple. Usually these couples will stay home from church on that Sunday. They don’t want to spoil the celebrations of others, but they also don’t want a reminder of what is lacking in their own life. But some are unaware that there is a level of discomfort at Christmas as well. And it is theological as well as emotional. Why is it that God overturns the circumstances of every childless couple in the Bible, but leaves them in their own circumstances? God makes promises to the barren Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary, but where are the promises of God to them? How can they process their situation theologically? In the midst of the celebration of Christmas, the birth of a promised baby, they live in theological silence. There are no answers. And Advent and Christmas becomes a bittersweet time as they join the church to celebrate God’s gift, while their own manger remains empty.
I have been unable to find a way to close this post. Indeed, it may be that closure is not the answer here since for many childless couples closure is not something that ever fully happens. I decided to Google the phrase “Childless at Christmas” to see if anyone else had thoughts. I found two columns recently published on the topic. One from the Australian Sydney Morning Herald and the other from the UK Daily Mail. Neither of them proposes answers to the theological aspect of being childless at Christmas. But perhaps you will find them helpful if you find yourself ministering to a childless couple this Christmas. If you are childless this Christmas, perhaps this blog or the linked articles will at least let you know that you are not alone.