Empty Mangers


Our family collects nativity sets, from as small as an egg to our yard-sized version. When our three children were small, we started a collectible set of resin Fontanini figures that they could play with and rearrange. When we set up the stable scene, one child would hide the Baby Jesus figure.  That manger crib sat empty for weeks.  Then, on Christmas morning, Baby Jesus was placed in the empty manger, as we sang “Happy Birthday.”

The time of waiting for Christmas is a joyful time, filled with anticipation and a flurry of activity. In a different way, this scene is played out in thousands of homes.  Mother and fathers eagerly await the birth of their own child, with the nursery decorated, the baby bottles washed, the Onesies neatly folded.  Soon the little one comes home and is laid in the crib.

For other families, the crib sits empty.  The desired child is not hidden somewhere waiting for his “welcome!”, for he will never come home.  He is one of the children who are born dying, one of the babies with a congenital defect.

Many pregnant women are encouraged to have prenatal testing. If the test shows the possibility of a defect, encouragement may turn to pressure to abort. The pressure usually works.  More than 9 out of 10 fetuses with Down syndrome are aborted. 
But is that the right solution?

Jeannie Wallace French writes about her struggles with conception, which eventually led to embryo triplets.  One died in the womb, and a prenatal test showed that a second fetus had occipital encephalocele, where most of her brain was outside the skull.  The radiologist at Rush did not want to perform a second test, saying there was “no point” since Jeannie and her husband said they wouldn’t abort.  Resisting pressure, Jeannie and Paul decided, in their words that “our baby girl was already a beloved member of our family, regardless of how ‘imperfect’ she might be.  We felt that she was entitled to her God-given right to live her life however short or difficult it might be, and if she were to leave this life, we believed she had a right to die peacefully.” [1]

Mary Bernadette and her brother Will were born two weeks before Christmas.  Mary died six hours later.  She was cradled in her family’s loving arms for her entire life.  Her heart valves were donated to two infants in critical condition.  Mary Bernadette saved lives in her birth, and in her death.

While an empty crib is heartbreaking, it is even more tragic that some children will never even be held—all because they weren’t “perfect.”  As Christians, we must resist the pressure to decide which fetuses will live or die. As sad as it is say “goodbye” to a newborn, it is even more sad to be the reason the infant never had a chance to hear “hello.”  We are called to welcome all little humans, no matter what the world tells us.

An empty manger can be a sign of peaceful sorrow, not bitter regrets.  

Suggested Resources for Families Who Have Experienced Perinatal Death


[1] Jeannie Wallace French, “A Patient’s Perspective,” in The Reproduction Revolution: A Christian Appraisal of Sexuality, Reproductive Technologies, and the Family, John W. Kilner, Paige C. Cunningham  and W. Daver Hager, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) 4.




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