I hate to admit it, but when I think about Christmas, joy at the birth of the Christ-child is not always the first emotion I feel. Too often, before I can feel the joy, I'm filled with anxiety at the enormity of my to-do list, and I imagine many can relate. In addition to the societal expectations around gift-giving, house-decorating, event-attending, etc., those of us who are ministry professionals or uber-committed church volunteers face additional pressures. Whether it's sermon writing, liturgical planning, rehearsing extra music, crafting extra bulletins, setting up events and cleaning up afterward, directing the Christmas pageant … Advent and Christmas can bring unwelcome anxiety and stress alongside the "tidings of comfort and joy."
But it doesn't have to be this way. Even I, an over-committed type-A personality par excellence, can begin to find ways to intentionally step away from the clutches of capitalism and a bit closer to the heart of God made flesh for a wounded world, this tiny baby sent to make all things new. For me, the breaking point came a few years ago, during my volunteer work with asylum-seekers. Having done this work for years, there is a running list I keep in my head of "Ridiculous and Horrible Things I Have to Remember to Tell Them about Life in the States." One of those things is a whole spiel about what to expect at Christmas—the TV ads featuring presents stacked almost as tall as the children opening them; the tables holding enough treats for an army; kids coming home with lists of gifts they "have" to buy for teachers and friends; hours waiting in line to see Santa … But then I always try to convince them that just because they see it, that doesn't mean they have to do it. That it's possible to be "in" the US without being "of" the US, to borrow some church-speak. The last time I gave the spiel, something just sort of broke in me as I was desperately urging people not to participate in all of the things I myself was embracing. I realized that I needed to begin living by example, doing better for them, myself, and my faith.
I'm very much a work in progress, and I still experience periods of serious overwhelm. But I'm on my healing journey. I heard a million times over the years how essential it is to prioritize rest and reflection during Advent, but I didn't actually do it until poor health forced me to. I now plan ahead for at least one day off somewhere in the two weeks before Christmas devoted to prayer and contemplation as an essential part of my ministry work. I set aside a 15-minute block each day before bed focused on an Advent devotional or Bible study, because I'm finally getting clear that God won't speak through me if I don't devote time to listening.
The other piece that is now essential for me is setting aside time and space to allow children to preach to me about the coming of Christ in the form of a vulnerable child. They know of what they speak. One Advent, five or six years ago, the kids in my youth group started texting me emojis every day. No words, just emojis. So. Many. Emojis. I was planning on giving them a lecture about how busy I was this time of year and how I didn't have time for games when I realized—they were texting me different versions of the nativity story. Through Mary's eyes, Joseph's eyes, even through the eyes of the donkey. And truly, what better medium for communicating the story of a family on the move than emojis—the most mobile form of mobile communication? From then on, I committed to centering the voices of young people in my Christmas prep, since they are the ones most directly connected to the story.
I don't know if these approaches will work for your context or commitments, but it's my prayer that, as you work so hard to bring the holy story to life for others, you will likewise find ways to experience it for yourself, and that you give yourself permission to pursue something other than a socially acceptable Christmas, not just because you deserve better, but also because we don't follow a socially acceptable savior.