Saturday, December 10, 2016

On Advent, Infertility, and Finding Space for the Other*

In a Christmas sermon delivered to inmates at a Basel prison, twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth commented on the journey of the holy family, "Thanks be to God the parents and the baby for whom there was no room in the inn found this other spot where this could happen, and indeed did happen” (Deliverance to the Captives).

They found this other spot. In this alternative space, the unexpected happened to the unlikely. 

The entire Christmas drama hinges on surprise and the unconventional. The lack of vacancy at the local inn only reinforces this truth. 

This Advent is unlike any other for our family of five. That is because we are about to become a family of six- with a due date of December 24th In many ways, the Christmas narrative has become our personal, real-life pageantry.  

It would be an understatement to say this pregnancy was an unexpected surprise. Our first three children, to include twins, were born after years of painfully battling infertility and navigating through the complexities of reproductive technology. Until their arrival, Advent was a darkened four weeks. As someone in congregational ministry, I remember fighting my way through the liturgy. So many of the stories and sacred imagery were reminders of the void we sensed and the dreams that became all the more faint with each visit to the doctor. We felt as though we did not belong in the narrative happening all around us, a narrative I was proclaiming through my vocation.  

This Advent, however, my wife carries the unexpected and the improbable. We await the birth of what we previously believed and, on many occasions, were told was unlikely to be possible…ever. As we anticipate the arrival of this little girl, who has defied all odds through her very existence, we do so with a fair share of angst, mixed with gratitude, uncertainty, and a growing list of questions. One of the more pressing logistical questions, “where will this child sleep?” There is not much room left in our over-crowded inn. We are looking for this other spot, too.

God’s preference throughout the biblical story is for the other- those who dwell on the fringe of society, the margins of communities, and are dismissed by conventional wisdom and systems of power. This includes the religious. God's self-revelation happens alongside those who cry out for deliverance, long for hope, and plead for comfort in the midst of increasing despair. The activity of God occurs in these other places like arks and parted seas, prisons and deserts, lions dens and shepherds’ fields. It even happens in the midst of battles with infertility and deep longings for children- Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth among others. 

The church must make space for those who presently battle such darkness.

As Mary and Joseph journey towards their makeshift delivery room, she sings the song she composed in the midst of a prolonged visit with her previously-barren cousin who knew such pain and void now redeemed. 
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant...He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:46-47, 52)
Mary knows it is not only the coming of Jesus that announces God’s solidarity with the lowly, but also the way in which the Christ child comes- in the womb of one marked as ‘other’ only to be born in the other spot behind an overly-crowded inn. Mary sings of the incarnation as God finding a spot among the other, the hungry, poor, exploited, and shamed, who now take center stage within this unfolding drama of deliverance.  

Mary’s song is a challenge to each of us at Advent. The Magnificat dares us to keep our eyes and ears open to the other spots whereby God’s love and grace may be both born and affirmed. The chorus challenges us to look out for those who feel the weight of being the other, especially in this season whereby voids and a sense of belonging are most vulnerable. The echoes of Mary’s song nudge us to find space for those frequently dismissed and ignored, who look for refuge and sanctuary among us. Even more, Mary’s song is a word of comfort to those who may wonder whose side God is on in the midst of a world most favorable to the powerful and privileged. So sing this Advent and Christmas, but sing in a way that elevates the voice and value of the other. After all, this is the song that has been sung by God’s people throughout the ages. This is a soulful song that magnifies the Lord who draws the other to the center. 

*This post was originally written for The presbytery of Philadelphia: