Advent brings the sense of delighted expectation that Jesus, God’s own son and the one whom we follow, will be coming into the world. Images abound of Mary: clip art of her heavily pregnant with Joseph assisting her, Madonna and Child paintings, nativity scenes with all the figures smiling beatifically at sweet baby Jesus, and church Christmas pageants with cherubic children involved.
The spiritual metaphor of waiting for the coming of Jesus like a pregnant woman anticipating her child’s birth is a natural fit for this time of joyous hope…except when you are:
- One of the every 10 women in the United States younger than 45 years old who has infertility.1
- One of the 7.3 million women in the United States aged 15-44 who have ever used infertility services.2
- One of the 10-15 percent of men who have complete lack of sperm and are rendered infertile.3
- One of the parents of the 24,000 stillborn babies in the United States.4
- One of the 10-20 percent with a known pregnancy that ended in miscarriage (the actual number is likely higher because of loss before someone may have known they were pregnant or never reported they were pregnant).5
- A person like myself, who has what is called “Repeated Pregnancy Loss” (RPL) with six miscarriages, each with its own random chromosomal abnormality, and no answers as to why or how we might solve the problem, if at all.
With these types of statistics, you are likely to have more than one person in your congregation who is affected by a fertility struggle and finds Advent and Christmas emotionally difficult. The oft-mentioned metaphor of pregnancy may not invite them into an intimate relationship with Jesus, but instead render more pain to an already deeply wounded soul. Knowing this and also knowing that we cannot skip the idea that Mary was a pregnant virgin and is going to give birth to Jesus, since it is a foundational piece of our religion, leaves us in a pastoral quandary. How do we remain sensitive to those who are struggling and still tell the “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10)? Based on my experience, here are some ideas:
- Reframe the language: Using the words “infertile” or “barren” may leave a person who is struggling with building a family feeling like they are a failure, broken, or being punished by God in some way. There is also an implicit attitude that they are not creative in any way, which is not true. Helping people view their reproductive challenge as a “fertility struggle” that they are going through instead of making their overall issue who they are (for example, “You are barren”) can theologically bridge the gap that God is with them in their struggle and cares for them and their future.
- Address Scriptures directly: When these stories come up in the lectionary, we have additional opportunities to address fertility struggle.
- Genesis 17-18: Sarah giving birth in old age (Lent 2B, Pentecost 2A)
- Genesis 29-35: Rachel’s struggle to have a child
- 1 Samuel 1: Hannah’s longing for a child (Pentecost 25B)
- Isaiah 30:18-21
- Isaiah 66: 12-14 (Pentecost 7C)
- Jeremiah 29:11-14
- Psalms 6 and 61
- Psalm 31(Epiphany 9A, Easter 5A)
- Psalm 34 (Pentecost 11B, 12B, 13B, Pentecost 22B)
- Psalm 130 (Lent 5A, Pentecost 2B, Pentecost 5B)
- Psalm 143 (Easter Vigil ABC)
- Matthew 11:25-29 (Pentecost 5A)
- Explore loss within the nativity narrative: We know that Mary said yes to God to give birth to Jesus and we often celebrate her obedience and faithfulness. However, with any decision, when we say yes to something, we are also saying no to something else. Oftentimes, it can be saying no to something that we have longed for.
While we do not have access to Mary and Joseph’s private thoughts about the life they imagined before God cut in, we all have had times where we have had to say no to something or a decision was made for us that shut the door on a future we had always imagined. This can create deep grief that we may not even realize. Since we know the whole story of Jesus’ life, Advent is a time where we can explore the juxtaposition of the Cross: holding the tension of celebration and mourning in one place.
People with all different types of tragedies, not just fertility struggles, can relate to mourning the other life they might have had or wish they had while celebrating what is in their present.
- Encourage people to take care of themselves: We can do this corporately by offering a fertility struggle or pregnancy and infant loss service, dedicated prayers during the service for those who are on a fertility journey, preaching on the topic of fertility struggle, and publicly acknowledging that Advent may be a difficult time for people with fertility challenges and encourage them to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.
Additionally, we can suggest that people join a support group through RESOLVE (The National Fertility Association) or their doctor/fertility clinic, see a counselor that specializes in grief and loss and/or fertility struggle, and look at books and articles that address the issue.
Advent ultimately is a season of hope and we can hold that hope for those on a fertility journey who cannot.
1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Infertility,” https://www.hhs.gov/opa/reproductive-health/infertility/index.html
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “FastStats: Infertility,” https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/infertility.htm
3 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, “How common is male infertility and what are its causes?” https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/menshealth/conditioninfo/Pages/infertility.aspx
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Stillbirth Facts,” https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/stillbirth/facts.html
5 The Mayo Clinic, “Miscarriage,” http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pregnancy-loss-miscarriage/home/ovc-20213664