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.

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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.