Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When the Manger is Empty: Childless at Christmas

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.

15 comments:

  1. What about Anna? She was honored to have witnessed the Christ at his consecration, yet it was specifically mentioned that she only had 7 years of marriage and lived as a widow until 84. There may not be answers, but there is honor.

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  2. John, I am not sure how Anna connects since we are not told that whether or not she had any children. Being a widow does not necessarily mean that she was childless, just husbandless. And I am not sure having honor gets at the theological dissonance experienced by those who are childless while celebrating the birth of the child. Those feelings are already there for in their world when they join with family and friends to celebrate a birth. When it comes to Christmas it becomes not just emotional but theological. In actuality, the Bible has nothing positive to say about childlessness and it is always seen as problem that needs to be solved. And it always is. There is not once clear instance in which childless woman does not find resolution. This makes it difficult for the permanently childless couple to find someone in the Bible with whom they can identify. It creates a theological dilemma.

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  3. Very necessary perspective....but doubtless overlook. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  4. In my first Christmas as a pastor, one my church members told me about the ongoing agony she and her husband endured because they were unable to have children. Biblical stories about childless couples conceiving only made that pain worse.

    That was a couple decades ago and I am thankful for your post calling to mind not only them but all others from whom the birth of Jesus both brings the joy of salvation and aggravates personal pain all at the same time.

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  5. Thanks for your insightful article and response. I enjoy reading your blogs and the issues you raise.

    Your blog struck a chord with me because in pastoring I’ve experienced this kind of dissonance over the years with friends and members of my congregation. They’ve faced the specific difficulty and others like it during various holidays you’ve aptly described. I recently have been praying for a friend’s wife who is blogging about her experience of 4 miscarriages, http://inhopeagainsthope.blogspot.com/, so your blog got my attention.

    I agree that there seems to be no permanently childless couple that people can identify with. Quite a dilemma!

    It is also true that we are not told whether Anna had children or what part of her 84-year life span she ministered at the temple day and night. As I was pondering the dilemma, I did find the information about her personal situation enlightening. Was any thing in the Christmas story itself that others could identify with and bring some comfort to?

    Your post got me thinking about others that have not had the typical family experience like Anna. At times our unmarried members have shared with me their struggles on Mother’s day, for example, and I have approached the challenge through scriptures that emphasize hope for the future and honor for the struggle with challenging circumstances, disappointments, and failures.

    In the meanwhile, I’ve been examining references such as Is 56:3-5, Is 54:1, Gal 4:27 and Is 49:20-21 that may be relevant to your post. Thanks again for the discussion.

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  6. Priscilla and Aquilla are an important married couple in the New Testament that Paul and Luke mention five times without any reference to children(Acts 18, vv. 2-3,18-19,24; 1 Cor 16:19, Rom 16:3-4). While we don't know if they had children, their frequent moves and Priscilla's active role in ministry suggests to me they did not. Regardless, they can present a model for childless couples.

    You may also want to emphasize that there are many important characters in the Bible who were childless, including Joseph(son of Jacob)and Saint Paul, and presumably Elijah and Elisha. While there is certainly a difference between prophets choosing to remain unmarried and married couple's who are infertile, I think that emphasizing these characters can show that God's favor and blessing is by no means always demonstrated through children. Many of the people who advanced God's Kingdom most didn't have children that we know of. I would also explain that the stories about infertile couples in the Bible are intended in part to show that even extremely holy people may be infertile throuh no fault of their own--a proposition contrary to popular belief at the time these stories took place.

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  7. I had not thought about these other people in particular Priscilla and Aquilla. I am not sure, however, how much we can make of their ability to travel since one reason they moved was exile from Rome (Acts 18:1-5). Also, Joseph did have children. He had two sons to his Egyptian wife. In Gen 48 Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh.

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  8. Thanks for your post. I see a lot of people commenting and trying to "solve" your dilemma in what to say to fix the problem of childless couples. Not me. I understand exactly what you are saying.

    I am childless and nothing will "fix" the situation. And many people are afraid to enter into my pain with me. They want a solution and there isn't a easy one- and you've seen that. Your post here has ministered to my heart. You have entered into my hurt and seen me and I am so encouraged by that. Thank you.

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  9. acknowledgement helps thank you - feeling depressed at Christmas is to feel a failure when everyone is so 'jolly' when really you just want everything to go back to normal even though you know you won't ever fit into normal. Any peace of mind you have seems unsettled at this time of year even though you count your blessings there is still a hole where the wind blows through.

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  10. Thank you for your post. My wife and I are struggling with this so much. We were do to have a child this Christmas but had a misscarriage and haven't been able to get pregant since.

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  11. I googled "childless at Christmas" after my husband and I with tears realized today: we got to the point that approaching family holidays and having an empty manger simply hurts. There are indeed no direct theological answers to be comforted by - not unless one follows the theology line where all OT promises are to be claimed by today's believers.
    There is no rational response to it either: everything from well-intended "fixes" from people to simply insensitive comments like "enjoy your freedom", "travel more", "have spiritual children", "commit yourself to ministry" - all of these do not help. We do not want freedom, we want diapers, snots, mess and noise. We do not want to be free to travel, we want to belong together with little persons growing up close to our hearts.
    We are left then with pastoral comfort: when one can just listen to you, without trying to resolve it (they can't resolve) and enter your pain a bit, acknowledge it as ledgitimate and somehow help you to keep your eyes on Jesus, Whose grace is sufficient.
    The agony of a childless couple is the dilemma: how to stay honest with God about your pain and heart's desire while staying content and thankful for the blessings you do have? I always think of Hannah, who cried her eyes out in a desperate desire for a child, and yet was not condemned by God for her tears. That gives me hope that independently of whether the miracle of a child/children will enter our life, we have a right to cry. God listens. His grace is sufficient also for that. (Alyona)

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  12. Thank you for posting this particular issue. Many forget that we infertiles are grieving for what we have not.

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  13. Very helpful book on this issue. http://www.amazon.com/Empty-Womb-Aching-Heart-Infertility/dp/0764224107/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1326602098&sr=8-1

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  14. Thank you so much for this. I found this post last Christmas and shared it with other infertile women, but didn't respond at the time. I would encourage you to share this again. My husband and I will never be able to have children, and due to the drugs I took in attempts to do so, my endometriosis has advanced so much that I have a few choices - be in pain almost every day, have a hysterectomy (I'm only 30), or stay on depo-provera (I am opposed to birth control - though obviously it has no contraceptive purpose in my case! - and I certainly would not advise depo for a healthy woman, as it can have unpleasant side effects; but I'm not healthy, and the effects of not taking it are worse). A set of options any Christian would like to sweep under the rug and keep there! But I didn't foresee these options and permit them - God did. I just have to deal with them.

    In short, for me, what makes the most difference is when people stop trying to lie about my situation to protect themselves from having to suffer with me (whether that's by offering unsolicted, and invariably stupid, medical advice; or by telling me that they're praying for me and they're sure I'll get pregnant - trust me, that prayer only helps you ignore me; or by offering empty platitudes about the nice things in my life, as mentioned above - "you can sleep in," etc.). The truth is, I've found there are blessings to being childless, and I intend to embrace them. But the suffering will always be there, and whitewashing makes it worse. And whitewashing is tempting, so other believers don't have to grapple with a God Who could let ME suffer - and might be willing to let THEM suffer. It means a lot for someone simply to acknowledge the scope of the problem.

    And I should say, the only helpful parallel I've found in the Bible is that fellow Who died on the cross. I need to return to that - even if my fellow Christians want to talk about blessings only and pretend there are no crosses, or no permanent ones. Some people can afford to be wrong about that, and it may hurt to hear that (it implies that I suffer only because I deserve to); but I have to get this right.

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