It’s Advent. One of those church seasons I’m supposed to love but instead struggle with, year after year. First of all there’s the eschatological stuff, and frankly, I’m more interested in the scatological. End-time talk and hymnody disturb me, partly because no two people seem to understand the rhetoric the same way, and it’s all too easy for sermons to take a judgmental or extremist turn: light versus darkness, saved versus lost, fear and wrath and judgment. It’s a stark season when faith is too often presented as black and white, and there seems to be precious little ambiguity or give-and-take. There is much about Advent that is beautiful: it is a majestic season and rich in imagery, however disquieting that imagery may be. But behind it all I hear the echo of Amos: “Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light, as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” (Amos 5.18-19, NRSV).
But more than that, my greatest struggle with Advent is at the gut level. The uterus level, really. You see, depending on what day it is I am either childless or childfree. I lost the ability to carry and give birth to children when I was 19, because of someone else’s actions. It took almost a full decade simply to accept what had happened to me, to learn what was my “new normal.” Somewhere in there I got married. Somewhere in there it seemed like everyone I knew was pregnant. I immersed myself in adoption culture, researching methods, costs, and ethics, talking to birth parents, adoptive parents, and grown-up adopted children. After several years during which my spouse and I talked, learned, prayed, and discerned, we realized having children was not for us. There was additional grief at this, but not nearly as much as when not having children wasn’t my choice.
So, on most days, I am childfree. Knowing myself and my family of two humans – though many animals – I am certain this is the right decision, and I am at peace.
In Advent, however, I am childless, and I am not at peace. Even though I remind myself that I am really, really not meant to raise children, I feel left out of the mystical communion of mothers. The expectation and anticipation of the story of Mary and Joseph and the Incarnation of God in Christ recalls the anticipation of all pregnancies. It’s like when everyone seemed pregnant at once only more so because, after all, this is religion we’re talking about, and what doesn’t feed or inspire you in your religious observance is liable to hurt a lot.
Then there’s the fact that there’s just not a lot of woman-power present in the Christian story that is not uterus-related. Even the hubbub over whether we call God Father or Mother is painful for many childless women. Birth-giving, breast-feeding, and nurturing language for God – so often championed by feminist theologians and liturgists – reinforces the message that what makes women valuable is their ability to procreate.
In fact, the most beautiful, inclusive, joyous feminist worship experience I have ever had was at a women’s Seder. It didn’t matter that I’m not Jewish, and it didn’t matter that I’ll never have children. What mattered was that we were all daughters of Miriam, a prophet and a leader of Israel (even a critic of Moses, her brother, and let’s face it, that’s kind of thrilling). Miriam is one of few prominent women in the Bible whose offspring are not mentioned. That night I danced, ate, sang, prayed, and laughed as a whole woman, one of many women empowered to serve God not by virtue of my reproductive ability but by virtue of my faith.
Perhaps this is why Easter is so much less complicated for me. It reminds me that the first apostle, the Apostle to the Apostles, was Mary Magdalene. And in its parallels to Passover, Easter reminds me of that one night when I felt accepted wholly for who and what I am, when for once I was a woman who lacked nothing. In the meantime, however, I continue to struggle with the times when we mention women in church only because of their wombs. I try to focus instead on the Incarnation not as God’s being born of a woman, but as God’s identification with the created world, human and non-human alike. My companions and soul-friends are the cats and chickens I am close to and who teach me more about the character of the One through Whom all things were made, the wild animals and water and grasses and trees who are perfect in themselves, because they are fully who God created them to be. Who lack nothing, who never get distracted by regret or self-consciousness. Who look back at me, it seems, out of God’s own eyes and see a fellow creature, exactly as she is meant to be.