Advent is about peace — experiencing tranquility of soul in turbulent times. The “Angel’s Candle” that many churches light the fourth week of Advent beckons us to find peace even in the midst of fear, as the shepherds encountered angelic visitors who announced God’s peace to his people at Jesus’ birth.
Experiencing peace is easier said than done at Christmas. Christmas present bills, damp weather and shorter days in many cases, end-of-the-year anxieties, relational and political turmoil here and abroad, and more.
Don’t set yourself up for emotional disaster for Christmas with unreal expectations. All too often, we think at Christmas that we should feel peaceful, happy, positive emotions to the max. Understand that there will likely be fear, disappointment, sorrow, and loneliness, too. These emotions often accompany experiences involving peace, excitement, joy, and belonging. Let’s consider two reasons why this is so, and then consider what can be done to guard against setting ourselves up for emotional disaster during the Christmas holiday season.
First, holidays, at least those like Christmas, are holy days. And with the holy holi-days, there is always awe and wonder, as my colleague Dr. Robert Potter points out. Here I call to mind Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy and the Christian mystical tradition. God is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (mystery awakening terror or awefulness and fascination)—one who repels and attracts at the same time (Refer here). Perhaps this is one reason why the angel told the shepherds not to be afraid in bringing news of great joy: “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’” (Luke 2:10; ESV). Obviously, the surprise angelic visitor inspired fear. It was automatic. But joy and peace as well? The angel was soon accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host who together exalted God, saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14; ESV)
The mystery of Christmas centered in Jesus involves both tremendum and fascinans. There is more, though. Indeed, we are always left wanting more peace, more joy, more Christmas cheer. This brings us to the second point. We will not experience these emotional states in full until glory. We could not handle their fullness until we are changed into Christ’s total likeness. Presently, we only get a taste, a glimmer, a tingle. We were not made for the world in its present form, which passes away, but for eternal glory. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in Mere Christianity:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Touchstone: New York, 1996, pp. 120-121).
So, how do we guard against setting ourselves up for emotional disaster with unreal expectations? First, be cognizant of the fact that we will experience a range, sometimes a wide range of emotions, including a lack of peace and disappointment at Christmas, when we are mistakenly led to believe that our holi-day days and nights will only be filled with Christmas cheer. The factors noted above offer some (not all) reasons for why this is the case. Second, be cognizant of Christ’s presence in the midst of turbulent emotional states and times. He himself was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3), which all began with his conception and birth. The circumstances surrounding his birth were far from ideal. News of his birth later caused quite a stir in Jerusalem, as Herod sought to destroy him in order to remove what Herod took to be his rival (See Matthew 2; FYI; instead of being filled with peace and joy, news of his appearance “troubled” Herod and all Jerusalem—Matthew 2:3). Allow the awareness of Jesus’ presence to bring stability and peace in the midst of inner turbulence and turbulent times. So, when you experience anxiety over emotional and social turbulence these final days of Advent, on Christmas and beyond, say to yourself this is no surprise. Earthly peace comes and goes, even on holi-days, given the reality of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” and given that this world in its present state is not our home. At best, this world is a shadow of the real thing. Moreover, the real thing, or rather, real One, has appeared and made his dwelling with us to be our relational peace in the midst of life’s various storms. Say to yourself the real or truly great surprise is that Jesus comes to be with us and be our peace, as the angelic host unexpectedly declared. Say to yourself these turbulent emotional states give you opportunity to long for him—our Christmas peace—anew. And as C.S. Lewis encourages us, never mistake earthly blessings and peace for our lasting rest, but “keep alive…the desire” for our eternal home with Jesus and “help others to do the same.”
For a discussion of how to deal with depression during the holiday season, watch this video interview with Dr. Robert Potter (M.D., Ph.D.).