On many inventories in the articles concerning clergy self care, Christmas shows up as a significant contributor to clergy stress.
In the ones I’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether the Christmas in the past year was particularly stressful. It’s included as “Check here if you lived through Christmas sometime in the past year”. (Easter is the other occasion.)
My guess is that you don’t have to be clergy to experience Christmas as stressful. It’s an occasion that, aside from any possible religious significance, has accrued so many expectations and traditions over the years that there are bound to be irresolvable conflicts of interest. For starters, many newly married couple have to somehow resolve expectations that they appear simultaneously at two family gatherings at the same time.
For clergy, the necessity of explaining every year to disgruntled family that you cannot attend their family of origin’s command appearance because you have to work is a recurring theme. And this leads to another inherent conflict around Christmas in today’s America: Christmas has been adopted by the state religion for purposes completely foreign to any Christian context. It’s celebrated in many homes (even ones where “keep Christ in Christmas” is a bumper sticker on the family car) apart from any reference to church. “Christmas is about family.”
Churches have gone along with this for the sake of getting along, offering “family Christmas Eve services” and the like. But Christmas, at least the versions in Matthew and Luke, isn’t about family. It’s about incarnation. Try telling that to grandma and see how far it gets you along the road to peace on earth.
If the people who spent so much time manufacturing their fictional war on Christmas really believed the Magnificat they would be scared shitless. As it is, most of them appear not to have ever read it. Television and Precious Moments figurines have sentimentalized what angels are. They are Terminators on a mission: to bring rogue nations back into submission to the divine Kingdom. Legions of angels proclaiming, “Peace on earth,” in the context of the Roman legion occupied territory of 1st century Judea is as much as to say the Pax Romana of the Caesars is over. To the shepherds, the forgotten nobodies out in the fields, the first word of these angels is, “Fear not”. As in, “You’re not the ones we’re coming for.” Herod knew exactly what the incarnation meant. Matthew’s gospel says he was scared shitless, and all Jerusalem with him.
That’s a far cry from what passes as Christmas in 2017 America. Christmas, like the rest of Christianity, is apocalyptic. If we really believed “God is with us,” we would act differently than we do. There would be no 3-hour Deacons meetings to decide whether the poinsettias will be wrapped in red or gold foil. The meetings would be about opening church doors to the homeless through the winter, in defiance City Council orders.
If Pastors are going to be carrying the stress of Christmas around all year anyway, it may as well be for something worth stressing out over. Incarnation is the hail Mary pass when the game is nearly over and all but lost. It’s the strategy of people who realize that the world has pretty much gone to hell in a hand-basket and there’s nothing left to lose. It’s living into the assertion of hope when all other hope has been lost.
In response to greetings of “Merry Christmas”, try whispering, Vive L’Incarnation.
Picture by Sirenz Lorraine.