Bearing Christ this Christmas

December 20th, 2016

One of the themes of Advent and Christmas is pregnancy. There are the obvious pregnancies of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John, but there is also the metaphorical pregnancy and birth of the Kingdom of God that Paul writes about in Romans when he talks about all of creation groaning in childbirth. “Pregnant” not only means “with child” but also “full of meaning, significant.” Our waiting in Advent is pregnant, anticipatory, active. Like a family expecting a new child, we prepare our hearts as well as our physical space, decorating our homes and churches in anticipation of the Christ Child as well as the Second Coming of Christ.

However, as preachers and educators, we should be careful and sensitive in talking about the theme of pregnancy as it relates to Advent and Christmas. For many women, difficult pregnancies, struggles with infertility, and miscarriages are part of their stories. In women under 35, the miscarriage rate is 20%, or one in five pregnancies, and it increases for women over 35. While miscarriages are heartbreakingly common, there is still a lot of silence and shame around pregnancy loss. The biblical narratives emphasizing miraculous pregnancies either in older women (like Sarah) or women thought to be infertile (like Hannah) can be painful for women experiencing challenges around child-bearing.

Certainly, a woman’s ability to support the earliest stages of human life and bring forth that life into the world should be blessed and celebrated, but it is also not a universal experience for women. Some women do not feel called to motherhood. Others might be called to singleness or might not find a partner until they are past their childbearing years, and some have medical complications that make a successful pregnancy nearly impossible. When churches lift up pregnancy and motherhood as the ideal expression of womanhood, it excludes those for whom it is not a possibility and causes pain for women who long to be mothers by birth and cannot be.

In our day and age, families are frequently challenging and complex, and our families consist of more than blood relations. Families are formed by adoption, the blending of divorced families, and even groups of dear friends. On the fourth Sunday of Advent in the Revised Common Lectionary this year, we were reminded of Joseph’s important role in Jesus’ life, not as a giver of his DNA, but as an adopted father and a righteous man. God forms families in all kinds of ways. As important as blood relatives are, Christians sometimes forget that we are part of a new and different family, one entered into by baptism and constituted by sharing the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Let us be sensitive to the myriad ways that families are formed and particularly to the pain and sensitivity of those who long to give birth but are unable. Especially around the holidays, wounds and losses around family can be raw. We remember that Jesus was born into the midst of a complicated family situation where nothing was certain, but Mary and Joseph were faithful nonetheless. Emmanuel, “God with Us,” is born through all of us. As St. Ambrose of Milan writes, “Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith.”

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