Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
A dear friend recently asked me about my New Year’s Resolutions, and I explained that I don’t make those. Usually my problem is an excess of goal-setting, and it’s more important for me to think about the roots of my ambition than to pursue them further. I suppose I could make resolutions about taking better care of myself—going to bed earlier would be a great start—but I push myself to set and achieve those kinds of goals on a weekly basis. I’m the sort of person who could turn yoga competitive—and thus miss the entire point. Plus, I’ll never trump my husband’s all-time greatest resolution to “be late more often.”
New Year’s resolutions are about looking backward and forward at the same time, to recount the shortcomings or unfulfilled desires of the past and to try again, or try for better, in the future. I don’t question the healing, restorative properties of resolutions for many people. At the same time, I find myself feeling sad this Christmas season, and turning to the past more than the present or the future. I think I’ve got some version of the Christmas blues: for me, an accumulation of stress and fatigue from a long semester where I taught an extra course; a lack of sunshine and vitamin D because I’m so bundled up for my winter runs; and a weight that I’m carrying about seeing some of my loved ones struggle and suffer throughout this past year.
I know that I’m not alone in feeling a little down at Christmas, even as I look around and count the tremendous, unmerited blessings that overflow in my life. I think so many people feel sad around the holiday season because the holidays expect so much of us, such an intensity of joy and festivity and merriment that few human souls can actually sustain the pace. Even if each party or gift exchange is not accompanied by an obligation, there’s the burden of feeling happy, being happy, and looking the part.
Yet keeping up appearances takes its toll. If I am honest in my assessment of the last year of my life, I am tremendously proud of what I’ve done. Last January felt like a spiritual and psychological pit for me, and even without holiday-specific resolutions, I focused a lot on caring for myself (and, by extension, caring better for those around me). I am in a good place with God, and I’ve learned—though I too often fail to practice—the truth that my worth and my purpose lie in God’s vision for me, not the world’s, no matter the occasion.
And part of that truth means that God’s vision of Christmas doesn’t always line up with mine. Just yesterday I looked at the angels from my children’s nativity set; the figures are the typical cherubic images portrayed in children’s toys and most holiday kitsch. No one, I thought, would look at that angel and be afraid, but so often the angelic visitors are met with trembling and offer the small consolation “Fear not!” Even the great tidings of God’s heralds are often terrifying, which is probably why Mary pondered those words in her heart instead of hosting a lavish baby shower for the Promised One.
In this season of Advent, God asks us to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child. I know all too well that the joy of parenting mixes with the unexpected, and nagging fears for my children’s safety and well-being. And with the story of Christ, we already know the ending, because the child in the manger grows into the man on the Cross. Mary has much to ponder in her heart, indeed. And while I do not mean to diminish the real depression that many people feel so acutely at this time of year, I find it unsurprising in myself that my Christmas joy mingles with sadness. That, for me, is not depression but awareness of the spiritual condition of the world, where families and individuals are broken, where the world is fallen. Even if I can rejoice in my own good fortune, I know too well that it is perhaps temporary, and always undeserved. It is fearful indeed to consider God living among us in the shards of the perfect world He imagined, but it is not, I think, supposed to be a paralyzing or persistent fear. “Fear not!” we are told, because the story of the manger is joyful, and the story of the Cross is gruesome, and the story of the empty tomb redeems us all.
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