For many families at Christmas, traditional imagery can be heartbreaking, rather than heart-warming.
‘Christmas is all about family’; ‘children make Christmas special’; ‘it’s such a joy to see the little ones’ faces on Christmas day’. We’ve all heard these perfectly natural sentiments expressed by parents and not just secular parents. Christian parents often put more into their seasonal celebrations because of their children.
In one sense, they’re right. It is lovely to be surrounded by family and excited children, opening presents or singing carols or taking part in nativity plays. And of course, it reminds us of the virgin Mary, whose obedience to God’s will, at great personal risk to her own reputation and livelihood, meant she was the vessel by which God’s only begotten Son came into this world.
Christmas cards depicting the virgin and child are as ubiquitous as gingerbread and chocolate oranges. Christians love to read the words of Matthew 1:23, as it quotes Isaiah 7:14: ‘And a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel, God with us’.
Sorrow amidst the joy
But for too many Christian families, such traditional images, readings and carols are tinged with more than a little sadness. For myself, dealing with ‘unexplained infertility’, despite living what the world would call a clean life is particularly hard at this time of year.
The Moses basket in the room upstairs is empty and unused. The little box of outfits gets emptier each month, as we give away to others the clothes we bought for the baby who never came. The Christmas tree is surrounded by presents just for adults (and one well-behaved cat).
For a friend of mine, a child born to breathe just a few moments in this world and then laid to rest, means that each Christmas which goes by for her is one where she thinks of what might have been: her little Hugo running around the room, wide-eyed and all smiles.
Then there are those whose arms are empty because they have never found someone to settle down with. I have wonderful Christian female friends who long for a good man to be the head of their family, but now in their forties they watch as women half their age at church get engaged and married and with child — sometimes to the men they themselves prayed for.
We’re not asking for sympathy; God doesn’t owe us anything; we’re not bitter either, for God showers us with other blessings Nor are we saying we do not love Christmas, nor that we do not want to spend the time with our families and friends, celebrating the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of the Christ-child, who ‘takes away the sin of the world’.
But, amid all the rejoicing, in the silences between lying down and sleeping, or the space between hymns, Christmas can also be a time for secret, hidden heart-breaks for many Christians and those nearest and dearest to them. There are sometimes tears behind the tinsel, and sighs behind the snow scenes.
While we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour with Mary’s Magnificat, some also are like ‘Rachel, weeping for her children, for they are no more’ (Jeremiah 31:15) — or have never been to begin with.
Weep with those that weep
This Christmas time, I’d like very much for those with families to be a little more understanding of the hidden pain so many childless couples and single people are hiding.
Church leaders, please be aware of the unmarried women, the single mothers, those struggling with bereavement, and those dealing with infertility. And be mindful of the words and images you use around them when you proclaim the ‘good news of great joy’.
Consider also those in the community, on the fringes, those who are not yet Christians, but who struggle with these sorrows. Show them some love, some care, some compassion. Come alongside them and comfort them, as Christ comforted his people.
This Christmas, please be willing to weep with us Rachels, even while we rejoice with Mary.