According to a national organization dedicated to the study and aid of mental health, holiday stress is a widespread occurrence that plagues more of the population every year, for more time each year. “Americans are stressed during the holidays, we’ve long known this,” said David Shern, president of Mental Health America. “However, on January 2, when a person may expect the stress let up, they instead find themselves feeling down, physically ill, or anxious. This is because stress takes a serious toll on a person’s overall health—both physical and mental.”(1) And the phenomenon is hardly unique to America.
If we could somehow miraculously transport someone from the time of the Old Testament into this conversation and he or she listened to us describe the stress we feel as we move closer and closer to Christmas, they would concur. We would of course first have to explain what Christmas is—namely, the remembrance of the birth of the Messiah, the day God came among us. But at this explanation, they would immediately understand. In fact, they would find it completely remarkable if anyone should not face with stress, awe, and trembling the thought that God is coming, that God is here.
Of course, whatever our religion, we are well aware that this is not why we are stressed at Christmastime. According to Shern, we are stressed at the approach of Christmas because of finances, because of family, because of the absence of family, because of over-indulgence, because we have too much to do, or because we have too little to do and feel the pointed edges of loneliness. For so many of us, the thought that Christmas is coming is indeed one that invokes fear, trembling, and attention, though perhaps for unfortunate reasons.
In the times of Moses, David, and the prophets, the nearness of God awakened a sense of awe and consciousness. “Should you not fear me?” declares the LORD. “Should you not tremble in my presence?” (Jeremiah 5:22). “Woe to me!” Isaiah cried when God appeared before him. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). The early church, too, spoke of Christ’s coming in terms of power, majesty, and the requiring of a radical response. “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty….and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:16-19). The coming of Christ—as a child no less, in a dark and despairing time—bids the world to stop and take notice, to wait and tremble in amazement at a powerful, peculiar story that changed everything.
Maybe we don’t think of Christmas as having anything to do with God at all. Or maybe we have become so accustomed to the thought of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the amazement of a God who comes near. Or maybe we have lost the will to see a light shining in a dark place and by it our own impoverished reflections? Can we consider the unthinkable love of a God who comes near—not in the form of a politician or in the strength of a military figure but in an infant? Will we see first the confining aspects of a stressful holiday or the despairing glimpses of a darkened world and only second (or not at all) the coming of light in the unthinkable gift of a child?
The Christian season of Advent, which in spirit is quite different than the seasonal bustle of Christmas, has been compared to living in a prison, though far from the prison-scenario many of us envision this time of year. Advent envisions enslavement, but not in the lists of things that need to be done or the emotional waves of the season. It is a far more real type of confinement: the enslavement of self, the imprisonment of sin, the dependence of creatureliness. Advent envisions us waiting for the one who breaks in and sets us free. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew well the cold walls of a prison cell, writes this of our confinement:
“Christ is breaking open his way to you. He wants to again soften your heart, which has become hard. In these weeks of Advent while we are waiting for Christmas, he calls to us that he is coming and that he will rescue us from the prison of our existence, from fear, guilt, and loneliness. Do you want to be redeemed? This is the one great question Advent puts before us…. But let us make no mistake about it. Redemption is drawing near. Only the question is: Will we let it come to us as well or will we resist it? Will we let ourselves be pulled into this movement coming down from heaven to earth or will we refuse to have anything to do with it? Either with us or without us, Christmas will come. It is up to each individual to decide what it will be.”(2)
Christmas has come! Whether we are finished with all on our lists or are mentally prepared for the guests we now host, Advent reminds us that Christmas comes. Christmas comes because Christ has come, because Christ is here now, because Christ is coming again. God has come into the darkness, into our darkness, as a child—as light himself. Christmas has come.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) “Survey Identifies Top Holiday Stressors, Who’s Most Stressed,” Mental Health America, December 7, 2006.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 224-225.