By Christopher Adams
For many, the holidays are a source of stress—this is nothing new. Maybe it is a refusal to engage with certain family members over the dinner table for fear of another explosive conversation about politics or religion. Maybe the fears are just business as usual but dressed up with green wreathes and Christmas lights: not enough food or fear of the power being turned off. Or maybe the season’s greetings are a harsh reminder of those who we can no longer greet because of death, illness, or severed relationships.
While this exercise of naming fears and anxieties around the holidays is inexhaustible, so too are our hopes in this season of Advent…right?
On Sundays during this season, traditions of the Church invite us to liturgically proclaim, preach, and pray through the lens of Advent as a season of waiting, a period of anticipation when Christian communities remember the period of waiting before Christ’s birth in hope, peace, joy, love. At the end of the eleven o’clock service on the first Sunday of Advent, my home church invited us to write an “Advent hope” on a notecard which would be kept in a basket by the Advent wreath at the front of the sanctuary as a reminder of our communal waiting together in hope each week.
But what are we waiting for? What might it mean to kindle an Advent hope in the face of anxiety, depression, or some other mental illness? First and foremost, I must apologize for I have no answer. But this question is not a problem to solve, rather it is an invitation to relationships in which we grow in ourselves, with one another, and with our God, even in the midst of our fears—especially in the midst of fears, anxiety, depression, and doubt.
In this Advent and Christmas season, I encourage all of us to consider advent hopes in light of mental health. For nobody is a mental health problem to be theologized about or solved, but rather like Jacob wrestling with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok, we are all bravely risking walking away with our hip out of socket demanding a blessing.
In this exhausting exchange, the person with whom Jacob wrestled responds to Jacob, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28 NRSV). It is not just enough to wrestle God, but to wrestle God and humans. This wrestling is not just some individualistic faith with God but a communal faith which bears one another and wrestles with and for one another. In our courage to name our hopes, I wonder what it would look like to pay attention to the fears which might lie in the shadow of our hopes?
When our hopes and fears become wrapped up in questions of mental health and questions of our existence, we the Church and human beings in community must be willing to answer to the God and our neighbor in support, liberation, and love. In a similar vein, Paul Tillich writes, “The courage to be, is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt” (Paul Tillich, Courage to Be, 175). At the intersection of the courage to be and advent hope and fear, our life together might look like advocating for mental health care, it sounds like preaching, praying, and talking about our anxieties and depressions with people we trust. It feels like an embrace that demands nothing but our presence. We are not alone in our advent hopes and fears as we wait for the coming of the immigrant Christ child.
In this season of advent hope, may you bravely embrace your fears as a part of the hopes we together hold in community. My hope is that at the intersection of advent hopes and advent fears, advent faith and advent doubt; you might encounter the Christ in one another and in yourself.
In case you happen to be wondering, my card has scribbled on it an Advent hope and fear which is: to continue growing in a sense of self-worth and to continue rekindling my sense of faith in a Christ who wrestles alongside and with me daily. My hope for you wherever you are is that the Church honestly talk and engage each other where we are, that anxiety and depression would be an Advent hope and fear voiced and heard by the Church as we seek to flourish and share that flourishing with one another in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Mother of us all. Immanuel!
Christopher Adams is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Duke Divinity School and plans to graduate in May 2020. Christopher earned his B.A. in Communication Studies at the University of Georgia in 2017.