In our last post, we looked at the busy-ness and practical tips for the Advent season. Today, we’ll examine the roots of Advent sadness, how to go on the offensive and a story to help bring home the message of the season.
Dear Father John, I am looking forward to Advent and Christmas this year with a little bit of enthusiasm and a lot of anxiety. I know it should be the other way around: a lot of enthusiasm and a little bit of anxiety. What am I doing wrong? How can I reverse the proportion?
Attitudinal and practical adjustments can help us plug into the grace of this privileged liturgical season, and they can also help us anticipate and combat the difficulties that loom on the horizon, sparking Advent anxiety. In the last post we addressed one of the most common difficulties: Advent busy-ness. In this post we need to address another, more dangerous difficulty: Advent sadness.
The Roots of Advent Sadness
In the United States, more suicides happen during the Advent and Christmas seasons than any other time of the year. Deaths from drunk drivers increase. Family violence rears its ugly head. Why? The season is primarily about joy, the joy of God’s love and presence in our lives and in the world. But for those who are estranged from God and stuck in cul-de-sac of secularism and egoism, being surrounded by symbols of joy can be disheartening instead of inspiring. It can highlight the existential angst that is eating away at their soul. It can aggravate their festering wounds of unrepented sin and tighten the suffocating grip of their regrets.
Those of us who have faith in Christ and a friendship with him are less vulnerable to extreme depression in the face of the season of joy, but we are not invulnerable. We all still have emotional and spiritual baggage. Much of that baggage is connected with our family relationships, our past experiences of growing up. And during the holiday season, we spend more time with extended family. Under the surface, reconnecting with family members who rub us the wrong way, bother us, or have wounded us in the past (or whom we have wounded) can create irritating or painful interior turbulence. Add to that the simple fact that our defenses are often already worn thin because of the stress of busy-ness, and you have a formula for meltdowns. Even on a physiological level, emotional lows naturally come after emotional highs. During these days, we often enjoy intense emotional highs – which means the lows will come soon after. We have experienced this before. The anticipation of experiencing it again is a cause of Advent anxiety.
Going on the Offense
What to do? There is no quick fix. The long-term solution for this source of anxiety is nothing other than growth in humility and closeness to Jesus Christ. Only he can heal wounds caused by sin (our sins or those of others). Only he can teach us to forgive and allow ourselves to be forgiven. Only his light can shine in every darkness. Once again, therefore, we see the crucial importance of not cutting corners during these days on our daily God-time. And once again, I highly recommend spending more time than usual in daily, personal prayer, even if it’s only five minutes more. (It may be that you usually don’t spend time in daily prayer every single day – Advent is the right season to form this daily discipline.)
Our daily time with God, where we contemplate his goodness, power, wisdom, and mercy, is the best defense against these subtle attacks of the enemy of Advent (the devil). But we can also go on the offense. Advent is about the coming of Christ. There is no better time of the year for us to strive to embody this truth in our words, actions, and behavior. We can decide to live Advent as ambassadors of reconciliation, as messengers of Christ and his gentle goodness to everyone in our lives. By going on the offense, we create a spiritual momentum that will enable us not only to withstand spiritual attacks, but to roll back the forces of egoism and discouragement that cloud the hearts of those around us. Make a point of reaching out to others during these weeks, even if it means spending less time making Christmas cookies and sending Christmas cards. A visit to an ornery relative, to a prison, to a nursing home, to an orphanage… A call to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time, a word of kindness to someone who is struggling, a family rosary offered for broken families… These are ways to embody in our own actions the coming of Christ that we contemplate and celebrate during Advent and Christmas. If we all strive to spread the joy of Christmas, we ourselves will experience more of that joy – just as during the candlelight service at Midnight Mass we enjoy an increase of light ourselves when we use our candles to light the candles of those around us.
The Little Broom Stick
An old story illustrates the beauty of going on the offense during Advent.
A poor little girl was taken sick on a street London one Christmas eve. Some good people found her shivering on the sidewalk and took her to a hospital. There she heard for the very first time the story of Jesus, the Lord and Savior of history, coming into the world as a little baby. One morning, Little Broomstick, as they called the girl because she was so thin, whispered to her nurse. She said she was having a very good time in the hospital, and she hoped she would take a long time to get well, so that she could stay. Then she asked her nurse if she had ever heard the story of Jesus being born. The nurse said she had, and then told Little Broomstick to stay quiet and still, because she needed to rest. But the little girl looked up at the nurse with surprise and said, “You did know about Jesus? I thought you looked as if you never heard about it before, and I was going to tell you.” The nurse’s curiosity was piqued. Forgetting she had just told the girl to stay quiet, she said, “Why? How did I look?” “Oh,” answered Little Broomstick. “Just like most people, sort of sad. And I thought you wouldn’t ever look sad if you knew about Jesus being born.”
That little girl had experienced the joy of God’s love, and she overflowed with it. If we give ourselves a solid few minutes each day to contemplate Jesus in prayer, the same thing will happen with us.
Advent anxiety flows from the subconscious anticipation of the difficulties we face during that season, especially those of busy-ness and sadness. But by attitudinal and practical adjustments that keep us in tune with the message of the season, and by planning preemptive strikes to minimize the difficulties, we can live Advent well. And by the way, you can count on my prayers for you and all the readers of this blog, who are becoming kind of like virtual members of a spiritual family – at least, that’s how I see it, and I always pray for family members during Advent.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD