Finding Christmas Peace in a Time of Anxiety

The Lord is never late; he shows up precisely when he means to. This Christmas will be no different.

Dr. Michel Therrien

I recently happened across a comforting verse from The First Letter of Peter that seems fitting for a time like this. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful” (1 Pe 5:6-8). 

There is a lot going on in our nation and world right now. Yet we will soon be in a liturgical season that calls us to rejoice with the angels who proclaimed to the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people, for to you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). 

I am always grateful for the iconic recitation of this passage in A Charlie Brown Christmas. It reminds us to join the chorus of praise that those shepherds of old heard, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” (Lk 2:14). That the essential Christmas message is given from the most unlikely, and yet wisest, character of the show should not be lost on us. In his humility, clutching at his blue security blanket, Linus sees what no one else could and tells us what Christmas is all about.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined”

Is 9:2

As I write this, I anticipate that peace and joy is not the feeling our nation or world will be feeling this Advent.  We will undoubtedly still be roiling from this long and arduous year, which has drawn us down into an abyss. Even if we know who won our election, the “results” are bound to divide further our nation, families, communities and parishes. The plague of COVID-19 and all the restrictions this pandemonium of fear has imposed is crushing to the spirit, to put it mildly.

But the Christmas event is the challenge Jesus calls his disciples to embrace at this moment, especially in 2020. We are called to reject fear and to rejoice because the Prince of Peace is born again. Out of unseen places he appears. Christ has come and He remains with us through it all. The beauty of our faith is that we do not need to succumb to the anxiety our world generates. 

Rather, we can remain fixed upon that great luminary of the night sky that portends God’s victory over every evil that afflicts us. This star will reappear for us on December 21 when Jupiter and Saturn nearly touch and the Liturgy declares in the ‘O antiphon’ for the day: “O radiant dawn, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This antiphon reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the Lord of the Rings. As Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins are making their way to Mount Doom, across the sickened and dark plains of Mordor, Sam sees a “white star twinkle for a while” in the dim and pale night sky. “The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

Advent reminds us that we are born up by a star in the night sky. Hope is the virtue God gives to endure the trials of this life here, below the heavens, with certainty that the Prince of Peace will prevail as His light pierces the darkness. Christmas reminds us that our hope is not in vain. Christ did come, and he will come again when the time is right. In fact, the Lord is never late; he shows up precisely when he means to. This Christmas will be no different. 

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful.”

1 pe 5:6-8

The key to our hope, however, is to follow St. Peter’s advice. We must cast all our anxieties on Jesus and believe from our hearts that He cares about us. I have always found it curious that the Sermon on the Mount dedicates 10 verses to the human struggle of anxiety. No other topic receives as much attention. Prayer gets nine verses. Apparently, anxiety is the greatest challenge to faith when we face uncertain and dark times. And as we ought to expect, prayer is anxiety’s only antidote. 

As Americans, we are an anxious people — riddled with stress — much of which is self-induced. The root of our stress is the disproportionate effort we expend on being self-reliant and busy. We rarely cast our anxieties on the Lord because we have what we believe are better solutions to our problems — government policy, a robust economy, a strong military, technology, entertainment and endless shopping outlets. The events of 2020 force us, unfortunately, to see how delusional our control over things really is and how tenuous our over-reliance on ourselves. 

Peter thus reminds us to “be sober and watchful.” That is the posture of a humble and praying soul. He goes on to state that the devil is prowling about looking to devour us (1 Pe 5:9). Peter’s urging suggests that a tremendous source of anxiety is the veil of deception placed over us by Satan. The devil is crafty and manipulative and so we must always assume that things from God’s point of view are not what they appear to be. 

Often, God is at work in ways missed by the mainstream. And the things we think we grasp clearly only entrap us further into the devil’s snare. The only way to avoid being fooled is to be humble, sober and alert in prayer, which is why the Church gives us this season of Advent to prepare for the coming of Christ, lest we be caught off guard and unaware when God’s victory over evil is announced.

The events of the first Christmas make this all too evident. As the ancient world reeled from political machinations, economic exploits, and seemingly untouchable princely powers, the Prince of Peace is born unnoticed in a stable in Bethlehem. The true King is announced without a headline or a propaganda war. Meanwhile, the prince of darkness didn’t even notice. 

What at first seemed a setback to God’s plan — finding no room at the inn and an exile to Egypt — becomes God’s humble and thus hidden counter offensive to the darkness that lay upon the earth at that time. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Is 9:2). So, be at peace, for Christ has conquered the world. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!