Cookies to make, early school pick-up to remember, church programs to attend, presents for teachers to make, caroling to come, gumbo to roux, new shirts to iron, presents to wrap, letters to mail... As my to-do list increases and my tolerance for sugar plums decreases, I understand each year where and when Christmas crankiness sets in.
Many years ago, three co-workers and I coined this phrase, "Christmas Crankiness" to define what we often feel in the dark weeks of December. To combat this emotion and dread we committed to meeting weekly for Advent devotionals. To read scripture, poetry and prayers, to light candles, and to sit in quiet thoughtfulness together in order to ponder how God is truly with us in the midst of our crankiness. Choosing the path of devotions meant we were ready to battle our crankiness, which I think may be another word for the ancient demon of acedia. This year, I read Kathleen Norris' thoughtful and honest book, Acedia and Me. She deftly shows how though often confused with depression, a disease that can be diagnosed and treated through therapy or medication, acedia can afflict us all. Acedia is the spirit of not caring. She writes on page 233:
"Acedia contains within itself so many concepts: weariness, despair, ennui, boredom, restlessness, impasse, futility."
She quotes Aquinas who wrote:
She concludes that the worst that acedia can do to us is not only make us unable to care, but also take away our ability to feel bad about that. Ah, Christmas crankiness.
"For despair, participation in the divine nature though grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing."
Battling a spirit of cranky not caring entails disciplined worship and prayer, community, physical activity and general service to another. I would also add humor. I have the joy of serving as a church youth group sponsor for high school students. This year for the Christmas program, they decided to organize a Nativity flash mob. Each teenager dressed in ornate Christmas pageant costumes, complete with angel wings, wooden sheep, shepherd crook, and baby Jesus, and we converged on various public places like a gas station and the mall to sing and pose as the nativity. Walking through a department store or riding the mall escalator was an adventure in surprise and humor. Shoppers made double-takes and pulled out their smart phones to snap a picture. One young girl called out to her mom, "Look! An angel!" Her mom nodded quietly while averting her eyes, thinking that her daughter was being rude to a fellow shopper, when I called out, "Merry Christmas!" She looked up, noticed the beautiful angel next to me, smiled in shock and turned to her daughter and said, "Wow, you're right!" Throughout our pilgrimage we carried a sign proclaiming, "You are not alone. God is with you." Who knows who needed to hear the simple message that God cares?
This week marks the close of the Christian season of Advent. I began to fall in love with Advent the December after my friend Juli died. She was killed a few days before Christmas, and I dreaded Christmas the following year; not wanting to relive those memories. And then I paid attention to Advent, and I realized that God had given me a season of darkness, of paradox, and of longing for sense in a senseless world right when I needed it.
I love that Advent bids us to suspend our faith and imagine a world where God is not with us. Thus, Advent becomes a season of searching and longing for God, where we seek to put our world and God into proper perspective. Perhaps we are given a glimpse like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life or Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Perhaps we join a Nativity Flash mob, or sing carols at a nursing home, or commit to weekly devotions and prayers. Perhaps we write a poem.
Joseph Brodsky wrote a poem each Christmas Eve, and every year I sit down and re-read his Nativity Poems. I share with you my favorite. I love how though written in 1972 in another country, I can see our Wal-marts and malls, our professional costumes and modern day abodes, and our longing for God's presence which is always right there.
"When it's Christmas we're all of us magi.
At the grocers' all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.
Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
Caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
Toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.
And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there's nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus gold.
Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth light as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.
That's what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.
Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men's hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.
But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that's Holy
in your self discover; you stare
skyward, and it's right there:
At this close of Advent and beginning of Christmas may you know that you are not alone; God is with you. Even in the midst of crankiness.