Season of Anxiety

Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

One of the high-water marks of 20th century culture, an event that I revisit every year, is the 1965 television special A Charlie Brown Christmas. The fact that it continues to air fifty years after its premiere lets me know that I’m not alone in this assessment. And while the conclusion, when Linus strides onto the stage to remind Charlie Brown and all those gathered in the school gym “What Christmas is really all about,” might be the most rousing part of the short film, the opening scenes also speak in a pretty powerful way to the human condition.

As the dulcet sounds of the children singing “Christmastime is Here” mix with Vince Guaraldi’s piano work, Charlie Brown and Linus move into the frame and Charlie Brown voices his holiday lament:

I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

If recent research is any indication, Charlie Brown is not alone. Articles and case studies on the correlation between the holidays and depression abound. Among the culprits advanced by psychologists are unrealistic expectations for the season, combined with excessive self-reflection that tends to focus on our disappointments. Others might struggle with deep-seated feelings of grief due to the loss of loved ones, or regrets brought on by estrangement from family members.

Lucy Van Pelt, Linus’ sister who offers roadside psychological consultations for a nickel, concludes that Charlie Brown’s problem is “Pantophobia—the fear of everything.” These issues—grief, regret, fear, disappointment—are probably familiar to many of us. We have likely all, during the course of some December, experienced such emotions and struggled to figure out why, during this season when we are supposed to celebrate “Peace on earth, goodwill to all people, and joy to the world,” we are wracked with pain and sadness and restless anxiety. We are confused and disillusioned because at the time when we should be the most festive, we can’t seem to conjure up the feel-good sentiments that we desire.

While it might seem like an obvious answer in a forum like this one, it could be that one of the reasons for the dissonance we feel at this time of year is that, beyond not knowing “what Christmas is all about,” we also have lost sight of “what Advent is all about.” No sooner have the calendar and the foliage told us that autumn is upon us than we begin to encounter the sights and sounds of Christmas. From October onward, it becomes impossible to avoid store shelves stocked with holiday cheer and advertisements designed to stoke our Yuletide desires with visions of all the things we “need” to fill out our wish lists. When Wal-mart, McDonald’s, and yes, even Starbucks are all marshaling their resources to get us in the Christmas spirit, resistance can seem all but futile. If jolliness and merriment can be bought with the swipe of a credit card, then it’s nobody’s fault but our own if we don’t get with the program.

Into this madness, the voices of Advent speak, reminding us that, as much as this season might be about the realization of joy and peace and hope, it is also about the anticipation of all of these things. As much as this might be a time of celebration, it is also a time of waiting. The tension that we feel during the liturgical season of Advent, which doubles as the commercial season of Christmas spending, is wholly appropriate when we acknowledge that this mix of emotions we experience is bound up with a world in which things are not quite right, but someday they will be.

The prophets who spoke to the Israelites as they awaited the coming of their Messiah, the return from exile, and the restoration of their worship, understood this. When we read the words of Zephaniah and Isaiah, we see that, far from offering holly, jolly platitudes and feel-good bromides for the hurting children of God, they were intent on reckoning with the struggles and stresses that plagued their people. They spoke to Daughter Zion of her sin, to Daughter Jerusalem of the oppression and alienation she was experiencing. They spoke of the fear that came with exile, the feeling that God had turned away because of their failure to follow the commands of the Mosaic covenant.

At the same time, however, they were able to proclaim that God was at work, making good on the promises of that same covenant. That God would not leave them in exile or abandon them to their loneliness and despair. That a new day was coming in which God would turn back toward them and would once again be their strength and refuge. If the prophets spoke of joy and peace, of singing and festivals, they did not forget to address the very real, very present burdens that God’s people were carrying as they longed for that new day.

When John the Baptist came, hundreds of years later, preaching in the wilderness, he took up the mantle that his prophetic predecessors had carried before him. To the crowds that assembled in the hills of Judea, he spoke of the coming judgment, the need for repentance, the oppression and stagnation caused by their arrogance, their stubbornness, and their unwillingness to yield to the purposes of a God who would surprise them at every turn.

And yet we can also read the passionate anticipation in his voice as he talks of the One who is coming, the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire and will set into motion God’s purposes for the world. This is why, at the end of this fiery sermon, this call to righteousness, this denunciation of his people’s sins, Luke can call John’s message “good news.” It is a prophetic message of lament and hope, a reminder that things are broken but that they will be made whole.

Last week, when I clicked onto a news website and saw the all-too-familiar headline announcing another mass shooting, the mix of emotions I felt was too complicated for me to categorize. I didn’t quite know what to do with what I was feeling. It was grief, and anger, and weariness, and fear, and a general despondency. I don’t have a name for it. What I do know is that it wasn’t the “Peace that passes understanding” that Paul talks about in his letter to the Philippians. If anything, it was an anxiety that passes understanding.

I know that millions of other people in this nation and around the world have felt similar things in recent days. With each report of violence, with each death toll that greets us, with each realization that solutions to the sickness of this world seem so hard to come by, and that so many of us don’t even know where to start, these feelings can wash over us. This can lead to confusion, disillusionment, and despair.

At the same time, even though I don’t have any easy answers for all of this, I am thankful to be a part of a community of faith with whom I can prayerfully and lovingly lament, a group of disciples with whom I can diligently and hopefully seek to manifest God’s reconciling grace, a family of saints from whom I can draw encouragement and strength even in the most difficult times.

Now more than ever, as darkness and anxiety and fear pervade the air we breathe, we need to be reminding one another of the message of Advent, the message of waiting expectantly upon a God who promises to bring hope to exiles, and of serving faithfully the purposes of a God who binds up what is broken, so that the Kingdom foretold by the prophets, the Kingdom inaugurated by a child born in Bethlehem, might be the Kingdom that we inhabit as we long for all things to be made new.

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