Stress and sadness at Christmas

Simon Smart on disenchantment with Christmas - and with Christianity.

A psychologist friend told me recently that she and her colleagues are always overbooked at this time of year.

Make a note, if you need some time on the therapist’s couch in December you’ll need to get in early.

Conversations with friends this week certainly evoked a sense that, even when cognitive behavioural therapy isn’t part of the mix, gritting teeth to endure the festive season is. Often rueful jokes about in-laws or wayward brothers mask a profound sadness that life hasn’t turned out the way we’d hoped.

How did this happen? Where did the magical Christmases we enjoyed as children go?


As Christianity fades, what of Christmas?

Broad disenchantment with Christmas, at least among the jaded adults I mix with, matches a more comprehensive disillusionment with the faith that spawned the whole celebration in the first place. Last year’s census reflected Australians’ growing alienation from religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Those even nominally attached to a Christian denomination dropped from 61% in 2011 to 52%, with those happily ticking “No Religion” rising to 30% (from 22% in 2011).

It wasn’t all that long ago that Christianity was simply the air we breathed. Regardless of personal belief, there was, in the West, a sense of a comprehensive story that was the foundation on which rested most of the ideas and commitments, the practices and habits and institutions we held dear. Today the church is widely seen as hopelessly outdated at best or, at worst, a toxic remnant of an oppressive past.

The reasons for this are understandable, even if much more complex than they are often presented to be.

It’s true that history is littered with the calamitous failures of Christians to live up to the ideals of their faith.

The baby in the manger grew up to be the most damning critic of religious hypocrisy going around.

In our own day, the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have shone a light on what must surely be considered the greatest betrayal of everything Christianity is supposed to stand for.

The Commission’s final report, handed down in the lead-up to Christmas, has reminded us again of that comprehensive and rage-inducing betrayal. Its findings legitimately pose questions around the church’s moral authority and whether it has any left at all.

For the last couple of years my colleagues and I at the Centre for Public Christianity have been researching and creating an historical documentary titled For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. Working on this has reinforced a sense of the misery that Christians have served up over the centuries. Crusades, inquisitions, witch trials, support of slavery, and the hoarding of wealth and power.


Jesus the fiercest critic of religious hypocrisy

The experience has also been a reminder to go back to the original story that Christmas celebrates. To recall that the baby in the manger grew up to be, among plenty of other things, the most damning critic of religious hypocrisy going around.

His most scathing critiques and eviscerating judgements were reserved not only for the rich who exploited the poor, but for religious leaders who heartlessly and needlessly placed crippling burdens on their people.

In the last week of his life, Jesus spent plenty of energy raining fire and brimstone down on the professionally pious of his day, condemning them for their lack of congruence, their outer play-acting that hid lives of “wickedness, greed and self-indulgence”. Take this from the grown-up baby Jesus, meek and mild:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

That kind of talk could get you killed in first-century Palestine.


Where Christianity helps

But digging into the history to make this documentary has also highlighted the best and most beautiful efforts of those whose lives were truly and radically shaped by the carpenter from Galilee who called his followers to justice, mercy, faithfulness, and servant-hearted care.

Over the centuries, efforts to follow that call have made the world a kinder, more compassionate place than it would otherwise have been.

One story we tell in the documentary is of Father Damien De Veuster, a Belgian priest who became an inspiration to both Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Sent to a leper colony on the remote Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1873, where people were forcibly quarantined in what was known as the “sick paradise” to rot and die, Father Damien set about restoring dignity and purpose to that abandoned and wretched community.

He built houses and orphanages; served as a teacher, gardener, and magistrate; introduced music and a sense of meaning back into their lives. He taught a rejected and forgotten people that every one of them was valuable in the eyes of God, and that death was not the end.

He blessed the dying. He embraced the sick. He ate from the same pot as them. He even shared his pipe with them. He followed the example of Jesus, who never hesitated to touch lepers. By literally entering into the pain of others, Damien brought love and human worth into a situation that looked utterly hopeless.

He eventually contracted and died from the disease himself, joining the ranks of those he came to care for.

Gandhi, who was a serious critic of Christianity, once said:

“The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts [them] by the thousands. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”

Father Damien was very clear about that source. The magic of what the Christmas story is supposed to be about never left him. It inspired him and plenty of others who followed in his footsteps to do great good at enormous personal cost.


Can the Christmas story save Christmas?

There’s no doubting the church has been a mixed bag over the centuries. My own experience as “the son of a preacher man” was one where I saw up close the best and the worst of the church community — the charlatans, the crazies and, yes, the ones you knew to avoid as a kid. But I also saw lives of undeniable beauty and grace and joy. These were unheralded, and in many ways unspectacular, lives of women and men whose commitment to caring for others, especially the unfortunate, left a lasting impression.

That’s not everyone’s experience of course. But it’s with that memory that I will recall the baby born in a stable this year, with all the mystery and profound promise that he carries. To my mind that remains the best antidote around to Christmas-induced anxiety, stress and disappointment.

This article first appeared at ABC News.

Simon Smart is executive director of the Centre for Public Christianity The documentary For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined will be released in 2018.