Two years ago, I was pregnant with my fourth child. It had been a very painful year, with a lot of personal loss, including the loss of a child to miscarriage. There was joy in knowing that our fourth child was alive and looking well, but Advent and Christmas that year was filled with so much suffering.
As with my other three pregnancies, I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum (severe, crippling nausea with vomiting) during my pregnancy with my youngest. Her pregnancy was my hardest by far, with more hospital visits for hydration and with the intervention of home health for a subcutaneous medicine pump (to deliver medication 24/7). I had been pregnant during Advent before, but the previous time my HG had not been as severe.
During my pregnancy with my youngest, I spent the early days of my pregnancy in a dark room, with as little noise as possible. I couldn’t eat much, and it was a struggle to find any food or drink that my body would tolerate. I couldn’t leave my bed, let alone my bedroom, and so I didn’t even get to see our Christmas tree more than a few times. Light was a major trigger for my nausea, as was sound, so I couldn’t look at any Christmas lights or listen to Christmas music. I couldn’t eat Christmas food. I couldn’t watch Christmas movies (because the motion of things moving on a screen made me incredibly sick). I couldn’t go to Mass, and I could barely watch Mass online, because the motion of the video made me sicker.
I was extremely blessed, because a priest friend of ours got permission to say Mass in our home. It was the first time that I was able to go to Mass that Advent, laying on our couch for the duration, and huddling in bed sick from the effort after. I couldn’t enjoy presents or prayers or time with my family or friends. I was so lonely most days.
It was the most fruitful Advent of my life.
I don’t enjoy my experience of pregnancy, but my pregnancies have taught me so much. They have taught me that love makes suffering worth it. As much as I suffer during pregnancy, that suffering truly feels like nothing in comparison to the gift of my four children existing. They are worth far more suffering and sacrifice than I went through, and I feel so unworthy to have them.
I remember Christmas Eve that year. We were staying with family (so that they could help my husband make Christmas a cheerful one for our older children) and I begged him to try to go to Midnight Mass with me. Typically, if I woke up in the middle of the night, I would have a tiny window of feeling a little better, so I knew that Midnight Mass would be my best shot of making it through Christmas Mass.
My in-laws took our girls to a Vigil Mass, and so my husband and I were able to go to Midnight Mass by ourselves (with only in-utero baby in tow). I felt very sick during Mass (that particularly pregnancy, I went through a stage where I couldn’t receive the Body of Christ, but could only receive the Blood of Christ, so I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to receive Communion). It was difficult to sit up and I couldn’t stand or kneel because of the nausea. I couldn’t sing the hymns or say the responses, and I had to close my eyes often to reduce the stimuli.
It was the most beautiful Christmas Mass I have ever been to.
Why was that Advent and Christmas so beautiful and so fruitful? It was because of the gift of suffering.
Suffering as Gift
I don’t like suffering. I don’t seek it out, and I don’t ask God for it. I’m guessing that you feel the same. But sometimes, no matter how much we don’t want to suffer, God allows us to suffer anyway.
I think often of Jesus’s experience of suffering on the cross. He wasn’t laughing and singing as he climbed the hill of Calvary. He wasn’t smiling as they drove the nails in. And some of his last words were, “My God, my God…why have you forsaken me?”
God doesn’t ask us to enjoy suffering. He shows us, through the cross, that it is normal and alright to cry and feel pain and seek solace in our suffering.
But every time that we experience suffering, it is an invitation. It is an invitation to bear the cross with Christ, uniting our sufferings with his on the cross. It is an invitation to offer up our suffering, for the intentions of others. Sometimes, like in the case of a mother carrying a child in her womb, the connection between love and suffering is obvious. It is so easy to suffer for a little, lovable baby. It is much harder to suffer for sinners, as Christ did.
But sometimes we are suffering because of others. Maybe we have endured abuse as a child or adult. Maybe we were injured by someone who was thoughtless or cruel. Those sufferings cry out for justice, and it can be particularly difficult to bear them in love.
Sometimes our suffering seems meaningless, like in the case of illness or disease (whether physical or mental). Whether we are in pain physically or mentally, that kind of suffering can be lonely and all-consuming.
Suffering is always hard to endure, but it seems especially difficult to bear during Advent and Christmas. We are fed a certain image of Christmas and holidays by our society – joy, togetherness, and bounty. Suffering makes Christmas feel like a failure. We may feel like failures, for not being able to be happy during such a time that is supposed to be so joyful.
But we aren’t failures if we are suffering at this time of year. In fact, we are being given the gift of experiencing Christmas as Christ did.
Suffering, Poverty, and the Manger
The Christmas of my last pregnancy, everything that I normally associated with Christmas was stripped away. I couldn’t celebrate in any of the ways that we normally think of celebrating. Literally, all that I had left to look forward to was Christ, and my encounter with him in the Eucharist at Midnight Mass.
Suffering leaves us in a state of poverty. Suffering didn’t exist before sin. It exists because our world is broken. When we suffer, it is a side effect of the brokenness of this world. When we suffer, we feel that we are impoverished and lacking in some way. Maybe we are lacking health, or companionship, or material things. Even those who are materially wealthy, healthy and comfortable are lacking (after all, those things don’t equal the perfect joy of sanctity and union with God). When we suffer, we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we have everything we need. When life is easy and comfortable, we can forget how much we need God. When we suffer, we are made glaringly aware of our need for him.
Yet, suffering at Christmas is very much in keeping with the first Christmas. Christ, a king, was born in a stable. My oldest daughter has recently started taking horseback riding lessons and let me tell you…even the nicest stables are not the sort of place where you want to give birth. Stables are smelly, and even a “clean” stable is dirty. Mary and Joseph were alone, in a strange place, and Mary was giving birth to a baby in a setting that was a far cry from a lush birthing suite. There were no Christmas carols (well, other than the angels singing to the shepherds), no Christmas lights or decoration, no fancy food. There weren’t even any presents until the wisemen showed up. By human measure, that first Christmas was a resounding failure.
Except…it wasn’t. Those things aren’t what Christmas is about.
In a very real way, Christmas is meant to be for the suffering. God chose to become incarnate as a poor baby, suffering from the moment of his birth. He is God. He could have chosen to be born anywhere, at any time. He chose to be born when and where he did, because he wanted us to know that we are not alone in our suffering. He has entered into it with us.
That Christmas, two years ago, was the richest Christmas of my life. That Christmas, I was given the gift of having Christ, and Christ alone. No matter what else we may have at Christmas, the only gift that matters is Christ. He is enough.
If you are suffering this Advent and Christmastime, take comfort. You aren’t suffering alone. You are suffering with a tiny, newborn boy, shivering in a manger two thousand years ago. If he is all you have this Christmas, then your Christmas is far from a failure. He is enough.