My policy is not to post sermons, on the principle that, if you want to hear a sermon, you should come to church. This one time, however, in response to a specific request, borne of a good reason, I'm making an exception:
I don’t know why I do this exactly, but, every year, I make a mental note to watch for newspaper articles on the problem of depression at the holidays. The first one I noticed this year appeared in the Denver Post on December 12.
It talks about the “holidays blues” and the pressure to act happy during the holidays. It says in about 600 words what my Uncle managed to say with 10: “Of course you’re depressed,” he’d say. “‘Tis the season to be jolly.”
As we all know, the total experience of Christmas is very powerful, with many emotional points and angles, and it comes at a time of higher than normal expectations. We all want to have a lovely Christmas! But that’s hard to do when you have the “holiday blues.”
Here’s how I think of it. The great psychologist, Carl Rogers, made a distinction between what he called the “ideal self” and the “real self.” The “ideal self” is how we imagine we are at our best. It’s what we’d like to be.
Our “real self” is our self as we really are. As long as the gap between the “ideal self” and the “real self” isn’t too big, people get along fairly well. But when you see a huge divide between who you really are, and who you’d like to be, that can be depressing.
It’s the same way with Christmas. We all have in mind the “ideal” Christmas--chestnuts roasting by an open fire, sleigh tracks through the snow to grandma’s house, candles flickering in the windows, smoke curling out the chimney, the warm embrace of family and friends, sharing love and joy all around, “making spirits bright.”
That’s why depression at Christmas feels even worse than it does at other times of the year. The gap between the “ideal” Christmas and the “real” Christmas magnifies the gap I already feel between my “ideal” self and my “real” self.
Sometimes I can feel a very long way from where I’d like to be. If that’s the case, then my problem is underlined by Christmas, made sharper by Christmas, amplified by Christmas.
Your mileage may vary, but, to me, the Currier and Ives so-called “ideal” Christmas doesn’t have much to say to that. The “ideal” Christmas doesn’t have a remedy.
I mentioned this to a friend of mine the other day, and he instantly said, right off the top of his head, “Oh yeah, that’s because it doesn’t engage the dark side.” Which is exactly right. The “ideal” Christmas doesn’t engage the dark side of life, which means it has no power to deal with the dark side of life.
Yet, that’s the whole problem. We “walk in darkness,” says the prophet Isaiah, and, at some time or other, we all do. We live in shadows at good portion of the time. We feel the darkness and brokenness of life. The “ideal” Christmas--the “perfect” Christmas--isn’t able to touch that.
Fortunately, this is where the Bible comes in. Over the centuries, we’ve managed to turn the Christmas story of Joseph and Mary into a Christmas card, but I think most of us know that the real Christmas wasn’t that way.
Give Luke chapter 2 a fair reading, and you can see that, right off the bat, Caesar Augustus and his lackey, Quirinius, were jerking poor people around so they could take more of their money.
When people in the early church would have heard the name “Quirinius”, theirs minds would have gone to the census of AD 6 which was followed by riots and rebellions all through the region.
Notice, too, that the tax census went to “all the world.” The Greek word here means “all the inhabited world.” It’s a word the Romans used to describe the land where they ran things. That was the “inhabited world.” If you lived somewhere else, you were a mere “barbarian.”
So right off the bat, we can see that the “real” Christmas story is about oppression and tyranny. It’s about powerless people at the mercy of powerful forces, who think that somehow they matter more than other people do.
It’s a story about politics, in other words. I know you’re thinking that’s a bad thing, but I’m here to tell you, “no, that’s a good thing.” It’s good because it means that this is a story about the world we live in.
It’s not a prettified story. It’s a story about real life and real problems, a story about the dark side we all experience. Even more, it’s a story about Jesus coming into that dark world to be on our side.
Jesus is not born into the Currier and Ives world, but into the “real” world--the real world of our broken marketplace, the real world of our broken relationships, the real world of our broken health, the real world of our broken dreams. Engage the dark side? Jesus is born into it.
That’s why the angel appeared to shepherds and not to Caesar. In the first century world, nobody was lower than shepherds. Shepherds could not be trusted, or so people thought. The word of a shepherd was not admissible in courts of law. In most peoples’ minds, shepherds lived with sheep, thought like sheep, and smelled like sheep.
Yet, it was to them, in their smelly “real” world, that an angel appeared. It was to them that an angel appeared, saying, “Behold! I am bringing you shepherds good news of great joy--good news, in fact, for all the people.”
God has entered our darkness. God has taken our darkness upon himself, and that is true for every person who has ever lived or ever will live. God has come into the world on our side, on our behalf, for our benefit.
Therefore, things are different than we thought. God has come to our side, and so we want to live our lives as God’s people. You can see some of that right in this Christmas story.
What did the shepherds do right after the angels sang their song? Did they pray? Nope. Did they start walking to Bethlehem? Nope. Did they take a bath? Nope.
Luke tells us that the first thing they did was consult together. They “were (all) speaking to each other,” says Luke. All the shepherds were involved in the discussion. No one was left out.
How unlike Caesar who yanks people around without their say so. How unlike Quirinius who steals their money. The shepherds talk with each another. They speak openly to each other. No privileged information here. Unlike Caesar, they have no secrets.
Mary does something like it. As the shepherds, you might say, bring themselves together, Mary brings her thoughts together. Luke says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Another way to put it is this: “Mary was keeping together all these words, bringing them together in her heart.”
As the shepherds were brought together with each other, Mary’s mind and heart was also in the process of being put together. How unlike us, who often feel fractured by the contradictions of our lives. How unlike our lives when we often feel pulled in many different directions. It was the opposite with Mary. Psychologically and spiritually, Mary was “brought together.”
I don’t claim that a person can go to one Christmas Eve service and have the same thing happen to them. I do claim this, however: The Lord God came into this world to engage its dark side, which is good because that’s where we live. He came not to some “ideal” world, but to this “real” world, and he came to be by our side and on our side.
That has its effects. When people hear the “good news of (this) great joy,” reconciliation breaks out, and people are brought together. When the Lord makes known this thing which has taken place, hearts and minds are healed and given new direction.
Life can be depressing, even at Christmas, some say especially at Christmas. But some day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, maybe next summer, we’ll all feel the brokenness of the world, possibly in some sharp way.
Then we’ll remember Christmas Eve. Then we’ll remember that Jesus the Lord has come into our world on the dark side, which is our side, and he’s the one who knows the way out.
Like one candle shining in the darkness, it only takes a little bit of hope to make a big difference. Christmas hope, even a little bit, can lighten our load and help us face the future, so that we can say, in the words of the old spiritual: “I feel like going on’.”
Though the storm may be raging, and the billows are tossing high, but
I feel like going on...Though trials come on every hand
I feel like going on...I feel like going on.