The Christmas season evokes so many happy memories for me, as I’m sure, it does for you, as well. Some of the memories rushing through my mind are ancient ones, from years ago: the Christmas choir concerts when I sang tenor in the junior high school choir. The prelude to those shows found me consumed with anxiety, but the songs —some sacred, others contemporary—coupled with the interaction of my peers, buoyed my spirits and filled me with joyful anticipation and hope for not only the upcoming holiday, but for all the future times stretching beyond. Other memories are more recent, from my adulthood and vocation as a pastor. One year, in the advent days of my ministry, my dad came to visit me in my parish. On Christmas Eve, we journeyed together to all of the Christmas Eve services in my churches, all three of them. Christmas morning found us sleepy-headed, for the last Christmas Eve service wasn’t until eleven p.m., and we weren’t in bed before one a.m. Despite the lack of sleep, Dad and I found our drive home lighthearted and happy, as we cruised over mountains to be with the rest of the family on Christmas morning.
My heart draws strength from the joy and the sacred that have been in my life, and those memories make me optimistic for the joy and the sacred to come.
Within all of this merriment, as a pastor, I have to acknowledge something else going on during this holiday season. You do too, as a sensitive, compassionate person.
Many government and journalistic sources report that the depression and suicide rates soar this time of year. Again, as a pastor, I have to ask myself, “why.” I don’t have to look very far for my answer, though. As a sufferer of depression myself over the years, I know first-hand that this season can be incredibly painful and difficult to survive.
Ranging from the stress our culture places on us all to “buy, buy buy!” the perfect gift for our loved ones, to the expectations to attend every holiday gathering of family, friends, and co-workers, we are taxed monetarily, in time, and most importantly, in emotional strength. Sometimes we are taxed to the point of complete exhaustion.
Others around us, and among us, are suffering from even greater pain than those expected stressors we all have this blessed time of year. For some, this will be the first Christmas spent without a loved one. Someone I know, someone you know, grieves this Christmas because a beloved one is now absent—because of death, because of divorce, because of hospitalization, military service, or a relocation too far away to make travel home feasible this year.
I have had one or two of those first Christmases.
I can remember too, the academic stress of college and graduate school. I always found it impossible to even think about having “a merry Christmas” until well after my last final or paper was submitted, and I had my grades—for good or for ill—in hand.
In my own journey with depression, particularly as a depressive whose self-concept rests so heavily on my religious faith, I have found it absolutely critical to stop. Stop trying to keep up. Stop feeling inferior because I can’t keep up. Stop beating myself up because I don’t seem to have the ebullient spirit she or he has. I think we people of faith do ourselves the greatest disservice– no, inhumanity–when we beat ourselves up because we are feeling down.
This year, my church, Trinity United Methodist Church, in Glenville, offers a Blue Christmas Service on the darkest night of the year, Thursday December 21, at seven p.m. The liturgy, scripture, and message of Blue Christmas acknowledge that everything isn’t always merry, even during the holidays. Blue Christmas honors feelings of loss, depression, and weariness. Blue Christmas gives folks the space to admit, even silently, “This is how I feel. I feel down. I feel tired.” The space Blue Christmas gives to express those feelings is a safe space, a space without judgment, condemnation, or even a pep talk. Yes, pastorally, I do hope folks leave the Blue Christmas service feeling better than when they came, but the message will be whispered gently.
The message of Emmanuel, God-with-us, can only be conveyed authentically, with gentleness. God is with us, even in the mourning. God is with us, even through the loss. God is with us, even in the darkness. God is with us, casting light, and love, gently, on each of us, personally, intimately, to get us through another day–one day at a time. Sometimes, the day we struggle to survive is a holiday. Sometimes it seems all the rest of the world, seemingly, strives, singing and dancing with joy, even as we struggle in tears.
Emmanuel comes, gently, through those tears, saying, “Let me help you get to see another day.”