`How far is it to Bethlehem? Not very far. Shall we find the stable room Lit by a star? Can we see the little Child? Is He within? If we lift the wooden latch May we go in? May we stroke the creatures there Ox, ass, or sheep? May we peep like them and see Jesus asleep? If we touch His tiny hand Will He awake? Will He know we’ve come so far Just for His sake? Great kings have precious gifts And we have naught Little smiles and little tears Are all we have brought For all weary children Mary must weep Here, on His bed of straw Sleep, children sleep. God in His mother’s arms Babes in the byre Sleep, as they sleep who find Their heart’s desire. How Far is it to Bethlehem by Frances Chesterton
At times, this Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord may incite, for those of us who struggle with infertility, an unbearable reminder that we are excluded from the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. For example, we may stumble upon heartfelt reflections online by women who relate to Mary through their pregnancies, or hear a Christmas homily that likens the joy and intimacy of the Holy Family to parents who welcome a newborn. Or perhaps we may have unfilled expectations during this time of year that tempt us to identify with what we lack, rather than in who Christ has called us to be.
This Christmas, the Lord revealed to me that the joy of His Nativity is not limited to those who know the miracle of welcoming children into their families. As I knelt before the Nativity Scene at Christmas Eve mass, it struck me anew that Mary, pictured in this particular manger in a humble pose with arms folded across her heart and face turned away from the Christ child, gave birth to Him not for herself, but for the whole world, for us. As the words of Isaiah 9:5, so frequently sung this time of year in Handel’s Messiah, remind us, a child is given to us.
The life of Frances Chesterton, wife of the famous English writer G.K. Chesterton, provides for me a concrete example of this Marian attitude lived out in the context of infertility. The Woman Who was Chesterton, a biography of Frances written by Nancy Carpentier Brown, reveals the profound and unfulfilled longing that Frances had for a child of her own. Frances was a woman of great faith who deeply loved her family, and who shared in her husband’s love for and sense of wonder regarding children. If any couple could have understood the blessing of children, and the pain of living with infertility, it was the Chestertons.
Despite the many tragedies and losses she experienced, of which infertility was only one, like Mary, Frances chose to pour herself out for others instead of focusing on her own pain: “Those who confided in her found strength…She faced life with faith, hope, and love, focusing her energy outward, rather than inward. This is what made her truly heroic (Brown, 85).” The biography relates the many ways that Frances lives a life of joyful service to her husband, to her community, and to the children she loved, including many nieces, nephews, and godchildren. What an example for all of us!
While reading the book, I was particularly struck by Frances’ devotion to the Nativity, which comes through in her poetry and correspondence. Perhaps in the Nativity she felt that same healing tearfulness I experienced this season when I sang along to the words of Isaiah 9:5, that a child is born to us: finally, to us! The Nativity points to the fulfillment of the deep longing of infertility, and of all our yearning within the brokenness of this world, yearnings and longings that are ultimately satisfied only in Christ. He is our Savior, our true “heart’s desire”, and the one who will redeem the world, reveal to us our true identity, and grant us eternal life!
I thought of Frances Chesterton in late January of last year, when my husband and I were blessed to travel on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with our parish. When we visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we waited in line with many other pilgrims to approach the entrance to the tiny chapel containing the spot that marks the birthplace of Christ. Though it was no longer Christmastime, we sang carols and experienced all the joy of the season. That evening during our group reflection, a friend and fellow pilgrim remarked that although she herself was not a mother, she felt the maternal joy of Mary in that holy place. This joy, I think, is what Frances experienced too, and what is available to all of us.
Merry Christmas, and may the words of Isaiah 9:5 be like a balm for your soul as you contemplate the joy of the newborn Christ child, who alone fulfills the desires of our hearts.
Allie is married to her husband of nearly three years and writes from Texas.
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