When it begins to feel a lot unlike Christmas
Today, I have a migraine.
I’ve had it for about a week now, and it’s a low-level one, throbbing away in the base of my skull with the tenacity of a nearby lawnmower on a Sunday afternoon. It’s part of the strange constellation of neurological symptoms that has dogged me for the past twenty-two months or so. Outside, the grass of our lawn is all but crunching underfoot, and everywhere there is thick, dense smoke; so thick, I wonder how those with respiratory issues can breathe.
It’s difficult to get “into the zone” of planning Christmas menus and wrapping presents when all I can think of are the firies, battling the Gospers Mountain blaze less than an hour away from our house, or the farmers, enduring one of the worst droughts on human record while grappling with that terrible, hidden cost of drought perhaps not even rainfall can truly ameliorate: the despair-ridden wasteland of the human mind.
I think of all those who have lost loved ones or homes or pets or livelihoods, whether through natural disaster or as part of the natural progression of life. Those swept up in the throes of grief, while life drifts on by with the casual indifference of a tumbleweed. And all those whose lives are awash with the blue of mourning rather than the lively red and green that traditionally dominates this time of year.
It’s beginning to feel a lot unlike Christmas.
I’m one of those people who starts thinking about Christmas in August. I was blessed to marry a man who is as passionate as I am about smothering everything that doesn’t move in Christmas lights, and the two of us together are a Christmas force to be reckoned with. Each year around early November, we crack out the Pentatonix Christmas album (a timeless acapella favourite) and with very little creative coordination or design talent, manage to drown everything in sight in tinsel.
But as I’ve previously written, this year has been difficult for us, as I’ve been unravelling God’s will for my life in the midst of chronic illness. We’ve had times of mourning and times of rejoicing. Times of deep despair and others of good, belly laughter. In true A Tale of Two Cities fashion, 2019 has been the best of times and the worst of times.
This year, a whole week of December passed before we put the tree up. I’ve barely thought about our usual Christmas traditions. Most of our fairy lights are still in their boxes. And you can still see our living room furniture, sans tinsel.
Scary stuff, in our household.
Christmas, I’ve found, has a curious way of bringing everything to a head—for the better or for the worse. It is a difficult season for many, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who often grapple with a spike in depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Throughout my practice as a psychologist, I found that the Christmas period was most often a stressful time for people, forced into proximity with relatives and colleagues in the context of alcohol, mental health issues, financial and interpersonal strain, and forced to give an accounting for all they had—or hadn’t—achieved in the past year. Domestic violence, of course, also spikes over the Christmas period.
But this year feels different, as a recent article published in Mamamia highlighted. It seems that many people are feeling the pinch, the strain, the breaking point. But where Ms Stephens would blame an increasing rejection of materialism, the unrest caused by climate change and apprehension of impending global catastrophe, and declining religious adherence in the context of ubiquitous institutional abuse, I would pinpoint a deeper sentiment—a widespread cultural malaise that seems to manifest more acutely in times of national tragedy. Something I first heard described in my father’s native language of German—Weltschmerz.
And in the midst of all this collective despair, I find a strange hope… and a unique opportunity.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
You may have heard the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, famously covered in 2008 by Christian rock band Casting Crowns. Few, though, are likely familiar with the story of its author. It was based on a poem, “Christmas Bells” (1863), by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who himself was no stranger to tragedy and despair.
In 1861, Longfellow lost his beloved wife of eighteen years, Frances, after her dress accidentally caught fire, leading to her sustaining fatal burns. Longfellow himself was injured putting out the flames with his own body, and so badly burned he was unable to attend her funeral. After his facial injuries led him to stop shaving, he maintained his trademark beard for the rest of his life. Two years later, in the middle of the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles, joined the Union Army without his father’s knowledge or blessing. In November of 1863, he was severely wounded.
“Christmas Bells” was written on Christmas Day, 1863, as Longfellow listened to the sounds of Christmas bells and contemplated the seeming incongruity of the Christmas season amidst the devastation. I can hardly imagine how Longfellow was feeling, having been physically and emotionally marked by so much tragedy and sorrow—a grief undoubtedly shared by the rest of a nation reeling from the horrors of civil war. The penultimate stanza of his seven-stanza poem—acutely, brutally honest—always gives me goose bumps:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
How strange and incongruous it must have felt to hear the merry peal of Christmas bells while the very world burned with a vengeance. How difficult it would have been to concentrate on the serene, picturesque story of a child in a manger—the cattle a-lowing, the baby awaking—when Longfellow was daily encountering thousands of returning Union soldiers, missing limbs or nursing wounds that would shadow them for the rest of their life. How weak the infantile Prince of Peace must have seemed in the face of so much ugly hate.
For all his tragedies, Longfellow might be forgiven for yielding to despair. Yet the final stanza of his poem is filled with resounding hope that God sees all—and that all will one day be restored:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"
If something about this season feels wrong to you, you are not alone. More than any other time of the year, Christmas superimposes the glorious potential of the human spirit over the stark reality of all our ugly fallenness and brokenness. Yet we forget that the Gospel is really about the latter. While Christmas can look picture-perfect—a celebration of all things precious and lovely—it is no more accurate a depiction of reality than a Netflix Christmas rom com is a reflection of true love. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4) and "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
The bells of Christmas Day were never meant to drown out the reality of sin and evil. Instead, they are meant to alert us to the reality that God is not dead—nor is he hard-hearted or apathetic or blind to our troubles. He feels the mismatch between life as it is and life as it was meant to be, because He is the only author of perfection. He looks beneath the picturesque mask we superimpose on a troubled world.
God hears our silent pain—not as a baby in a manger, but through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Prince of Peace—the Word made flesh. For me, the first step to knowing Jesus was an encounter with Weltschmerz—the inevitable sadness felt on realising the utter inadequacy or imperfection of this world. But in the midst of this emptiness, Jesus brought to my life a new hope; an eager expectation for the world to come. In the words of one of my favourite carols, “O Holy Night”:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
We often forget that as followers of Jesus, we possess this glorious hope—this God-given sight that beholds the world as it truly is and yet does not despair, choosing to yearn for the glory of the world yet to come.
Longfellow never forgot the wife who died in tragic circumstances; in fact, he never recovered from the loss. The fires of NSW are still burning. The drought remains unbroken. Though my experience surely pales in comparison with such suffering, I still, quite unfortunately, have my pesky migraine. But even in the midst of these trials, we have a “thrill of hope”: that our citizenship is not in Australia but in Heaven, and that Jesus has the power to transform our lowly, weary, weakened bodies into a reflection of His glory (Philippians 3:20-22). And to that end, we consider everything else loss for the sake of gaining Christ (Philippians 3:7-9).
Over 150 years later, as our friends and colleagues increasingly think of Christians as fools to believe in a Imaginary Man in the Sky (as I have heard with growing frequency) or an ineffectual baby in a manger, and drought sinks its teeth into more and more of our continent, and enormous fires rage with no significant rain in sight, I think we can find more than a little solidarity with Longfellow’s plight. Yes, the theologically rich carols of our Judaeo-Christian heritage may have been progressively turned down in favour of sleigh bells and a deep distrust of anything or anyone religious.
But we have a God who is not dead—nor does he sleep. And the “unbroken song” of “all Christendom” rolls along—a promise of eternal peace on earth and goodwill to men, fulfilled in the very person of Jesus Himself.