Christmas for the stressed.

Stress is a normal part of life.  When something around us changes, our minds and bodies respond to these stresses and adjust to the new situation.  Stress is a good thing, helping us to grow out of our comfort zone and to develop resilience.  Stress only becomes toxic when we feel out of control or overloaded. 

t Christmas, sadly, it is easy to feel out of control.  If family and friends come to you, you can feel overworked and overloaded, whereas if you are the guest you can feel constrained by someone else’s rules.  There is intense pressure to create the perfect Christmas, especially if this is the only time of the year your family meets together.  Family gatherings can be great fun, but there are times when families disagree and tensions run high. Eating and drinking too much, followed by uncomfortable nights on an ancient sofabed, can leave you feeling exhausted and irritable as the older members of the family embark on another round of criticism of everything from frozen roast potatoes to the divorce rate.  It’s enough to make you feel the prophet Micah had your family in mind when he wrote:
the son treats the father with contempt,
   the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
   your enemies are members of your own household.’

Micah describes the collapse of a nation as being like the collapse of a household, an apt metaphor for the nation of Israel which sees itself as God’s own family, God’s chosen people.  This year our domestic stresses have the backdrop of a world in turmoil and we know that many families are suffering extreme stress as they are separated, displaced or damaged by war and oppression.  It is difficult to see the light of the world in the darkness around us and many people feel little hope.  The central story of Christmas is not one of a happy family in a settled home, but of a child born in a temporary shelter into a poor family living under an oppressive regime. Mary endures childbirth in dreadful conditions, and when the child finally arrives she has to lay him in a makeshift cradle. Yet despite these deep stresses, she finds hope and joy in this new life and builds memories to treasure in her heart.

It is tempting, today, to feel that we ought to have the secret of a happy, stress-free Christmas.  The magazines promise us that if we only follow their sequence of instructions and buy their long list of products, all will be well, the turkey will be bronzed and the children will be delighted with their presents.  A real Christmas is never perfect, never stress-free, but if, like Mary, we fix our eyes on the Christ child, we will see the gift of God’s love to the world.  No matter what stresses we endure, no matter what darkness surrounds us, hope from on high has visited us, bringing light to those who sit in darkness and showing us the path to peace.