This parish is pregnant!
A pregnancy is a promise of great changes to come, and a journey from here to there. Usually it begins by noticing that something subtle has changed. Then come the pains of morning sickness. As the child’s body takes form, the mother becomes aware that something is alive – and kicking – within her, but even with ultrasound technology, there will still be a revelation to come when the child is born. Even that’s not the end of the story, for it will take many years for the child to grow to maturity, the parents gradually discovering the person the child will become.
In the same way, we in this parish are on a journey towards next autumn, when we will launch our Parish Connection Programme, which will be both a way for us who worship regularly to re-connect with one another and explore our faith, and also the gateway to baptism, first communion and confirmation for parents, adults, and teenagers who wish to receive these sacraments. Like any pregnancy, it will involve uncertainty and pain. It will take time for the new programme to take shape. And once it is born, it will take time to grow to maturity. People of St Philip Evans, I will be relying on you to support this new project as you would support a mother with a newborn child. I have already been having conversations with key parishioners, and in the New Year I will be ready to roll out more information – but for now I ask for your prayers.
Not only is this parish pregnant, but today is ‘Expectant Mothers’ Sunday’. It’s a day to remember that the church welcomes all human life in the womb, and there are special ceremonies of blessing that families can ask for when a mother is pregnant. But there are also ceremonies we can use when such joy turns to sorrow.
Tomorrow, the whole world will celebrate the birth of a child, and families will be reunited around a meal. Today, it’s only right that we acknowledge that for some of us, this will not be filled with all the joy we would hope for. Some parents – like Elizabeth – will know barrenness, and will have no children to share the celebration. Although childlessness was a stigma in Jewish society of those days, it was not and is not a sign of God’s displeasure. Other parents will celebrate this Christmas conscious that one of their children is missing – lost through miscarriage, or some tragedy later in life – or an older child presumed alive but no longer in touch. Most of us will spend Christmas conscious of generations who are no longer with us, but the absence of a child brings a special pain.
If you’re a mum, or a dad, in one of these situations, I want to say something to you – and I’m happy to donate these words to anyone else who’s not sure what the ‘right thing to say’ is.
I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never fathered a child. I don’t know how you’re feeling right now. But I do care.
As a priest, I only get to know people’s personal stories when I am called to the home or the hospital, so my “caring” has to be quite general. But I hope that if any of you here present today know someone personally who needs to hear those words, you have a chance to use them at the right time in the next few days.
When a pregnancy does go to plan, it still involves great uncertainty. When will the mother go into labour? What will the child be like? In a way, the whole Old Testament is a story of expectant waiting for the Christ-child: the prophet Nathan tells Royal David that he is destined to be the father of a line of kings, but will not be the one who gives birth to a Temple for God.
St Paul was fond of using the image of a pregnant mother. In the letter to the Romans, he used the image of the whole world being ‘in labour’ as we live in an imperfect world awaiting the perfection of heaven, and in today’s extract he gives praise to God because he was alive at the long-prophesied time when God-made-man walked upon the earth.
As followers of Christ, knowing every human being bears his image, we have a solemn duty to welcome every child as we would welcome Christ himself. But that welcome doesn’t just extend to our pro-life stance. It extends to the way we treat every human being, especially the most annoying ones who cross our path!
During the next 24 hours, you’re probably going to attend a Christmas Mass. There will be lots of people there who only come to church once or twice a year. They will do some very annoying things. They will park where you like to park. They will sit in your favourite seat. They might have forgotten what they learned about good manners in church and chew gum or get distracted by their phones. When they do, our job is to make them welcome, for Christ is in them.
Congratulations! You’re pregnant!
You are about to give birth to Christ present in a guest in this or another church! Maybe that guest isn’t yet ready to re-connect with church regularly, and whether Christ brings renewed faith to birth in them depends on how well they experience love. So there are still some important gifts you can give this Christmas. You can give your regular seat and parking place to someone who needs to be welcomed. You can give a smile to the person who looks awkward at Christmas worship. You can give guidance with the order of service to the person sitting next to you. And most of all, do it with joy, giving glory to God, it is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be!
Some links useful if you are supporting someone who has experienced a miscarriage:
- What should you say? Miscarriage Association New Zealand advice
- Personal account from a woman who’s been there in The Guardian
- The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity SANDS
- What if you lose one twin and not the other? The Rainbow Baby signal may help.
Cruse offers advice on how bereavement can impact Christmas.