At Christmas, our hearts and souls are finally filled, like the manger, with the Lord of all life, come to us as a tiny baby that we ached for with our whole being.
As the mother of six children, all under age twelve, infertility is clearly not a struggle for me. But my heart breaks for couples who have been asked to carry that cross. I have a friend who has tried just about every fertility treatment under the sun – no matter how painful, degrading, or clearly fraudulent it is. And while I cry with her month after month as she remains childless, I hope there is a special consequence in the next world for people who prey on the vulnerability of the barren.
She was on my mind this Christmas Eve, as we whiled away the hour we had until Mass started, the only way to ensure a seat at the most popular Mass of the year. I watched the pews fill in, and as people got settled in their spots, the first thing they did was crane their neck to look at the life-sized Nativity scene at the front of the church. I watched people’s eyes focus on the manger, and I watched the mix of disappointment and relief cross their face.
Disappointment that it was still empty – still! After we’ve waited so long! And relief that they hadn’t missed the infant’s arrival.
You could almost feel the longing as people watched the manger – the longing of a people who know their souls are utterly barren, and the only thing they possess is an all-consuming yearning for the one thing that will bring life. The longing of a people who know the desolation of their hearts is complete, and completely outside their ability to remedy. The longing of a people who know that the one thing that they want is the Child of Bethlehem. At that moment, we were all carrying the cross of infertility, and we were all united in our barrenness.
Other than stares, though, the adults stiff-upper-lipped these feelings and contented themselves with silent glances, but the children didn’t bother. My six-year-old, who while standing on the kneeler to see over the heads of people in front of him declared, “Where is Baby Jesus? Isn’t it time yet? I’m tired of waiting!” The adults within earshot chuckled indulgently, but they were all jostling to get a good view when, right before Mass started, a little girl accompanied by her teenaged brother processed up the aisle with the infant cradled in her arms.
The parish was completely silent as the siblings approached the nativity, and when the girl placed the plaster figure into the manger, you could feel everyone relax. Some probably brushed it off as relief that the girl didn’t drop an expensive statue, but I knew what it was – it was the joy of a people whose longing for the child has been filled. It was the wonder of a heart suddenly full of life, after being barren and lifeless for so long. All those feelings of relief and joy and wonder that we lose during the course of the year, that we surrender bit by bit to the world’s troubles and seductions, radiated out of a plaster manger, which was mysteriously but undeniably connected to that original one 2,000 years before.
The communion hymn was “Away in a Manger,” which would normally evoke massive eye rolling from me. But that night, I belted it out with the rest of the parish – the grateful lullaby sung by a people who no longer suffered spiritual barrenness, because unto us a child was born. Our hearts and souls have been filled, like the manger, with the Lord of all life, come to us as a tiny baby that we ached for with our whole being.