By Mary Elizabeth Hill Hanchey
“It must be amazing to be pregnant at Christmas!”
I remember well when a good friend, a minister actually, said this to me! I was 8 months pregnant with a second child following a miscarriage.
This friend wasn’t referring to being pregnant in the midst of the frivolity of lights and gift preparations – in fact, it is not, actually, amazing to be 8 months pregnant at a time when there is so much to be done.
He was, instead, acknowledging that as our faith community waited for the birth of the baby Jesus, I had pretty intimate knowledge of some of what Mary would have experienced. Though I never had to ride a donkey anywhere, much less across the state. I was also not a teenage mother. I had also not been visited by the Angel Gabriel. Or any other angel as far as I could tell.
But he was not incorrect. There was something amazing about being pregnant as we prepared for the coming of the Christ child; as we sang of the sweet baby Jesus asleep in the hay; as “For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given” blared in our little station wagon while I drove our two year old around from preschool to Target to church activities.
There is another reality, however.
For those suffering long infertility, for those whose miscarriages and empty womb are a source of chronic grief, the Christmas season is a particularly painful and awful one. And church offers no refuge. The liturgy the, the carols, the children’s sermons that talk about babies growing in mommies’ bellies: they are enough to make one come unhinged.
To weep through cantata rehearsals, barely able to utter the words about the baby that fill every single blessed song.
To hold one’s breath during the Christmas Eve service, afraid that making any effort so sing or speak will result in choking sobs.
To stay out of worship, unable to look upon the empty manger sitting in the crèche.
Ours is a story of a teenage mother who became pregnant without even trying. Who sang, “all generations will call me blessed!” For those tangled in fertility grief, this is a story that is particularly difficult to celebrate.
How will this reminder impact the way that your congregation worships and ministers in weeks to come? Consider these possibilities:
- Name the grief. In the opening announcements or prayer concerns or pastoral prayer, acknowledge that this season of waiting for the Christ child is difficult for many, including those who are grieving infertility, the loss of pregnancies, infant loss and the death of children.
- Address the grief pastorally. Invite those for whom this season is difficult to share their story. Make home visits to those who may opt out of this season. Bring communion to those for whom worship is too painful during Advent and Christmas.
- Choose language carefully.
- Choose language that is not so centered on babies. Talk about waiting for the in-breaking of Christ into our lives. Or waiting for light in the darkness. Or waiting for the arrival of Jesus in human flesh, Jesus who as walked among us and who will be our salvation. Consider the hymn selections – do all of them romanticize the baby Jesus?
- Choose language that includes more than remembrance. In prayers, in special services of grief and hope (or “Blue Christmas” services), in other acknowledgements of how difficult this season can be, consider this: language of remembrance is not adequate to address fertility grief. This grief isn’t one that remembers a life lived, but that grieves life that has not come.
- Provide resources. My favorite resource is a collection of devotions (of which I am an editor): Though the Darkness Gathers Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss, published by Smyth & Helwys. (Click HERE for ordering information). The Project Pomegranate Website is also full of helpful resources, and new ones are being added all the time.
May this season be one in which all of our darknesses – all of our hopes and fears, all of our weariness and shortfallings, all of our many griefs – are illuminated by the Light which darkness cannot overcome. May we learn to recognize Jesus, God-with-us as, we live and breath and have our being. Amen.
Mary Elizabeth Hill Hanchey lives with her husband and children in Durham, N.C. She earned a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is currently earning a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School, where she is a part of the Baptist House. She worships with her family at Watts Street Baptist Church where she is Interim Director of Children’s Music Ministries. She is also co-founder of Project Pomegranate which provides spiritual resources about fertility grief.