Advent anxiety

By Richard Helmer

December 1st hit with an unusual intensity this Advent, as the beginning of the season coincided with the secular realization that Christmas was coming, the economic woe was deepening, and the apocalyptic messages deep in our tradition were stepping forward. In the days since, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking people down from climbing walls, while watching and listening to them exercise the anxieties that have become too many to number.

It’s tempting to grump about the general state of people right before Christmas – the greater clamor of car horns, impatient traffic, exasperated shoppers, shallow commercialism, overly-exuberant holiday lovers, and children who melt down before their exhausted parents in store aisles and on street corners. Unresolved family dynamics show up at the table – whether God’s or our dining room’s. Some people around us who have been on edge all year go over at this time. Many of us working in or otherwise connected to the Church get to see all this happen and more in all its dramatic Technicolor. And then we are asked or expected to help pick up the pieces.

Even the Church itself seems to be suffering from an overly developed Advent anxiety this year. In early December, enormous attention turned to a small group of schismatic Anglicans who declared themselves the new province in North America. It’s a new province only because they say it is. Yet that’s enough to garner international headlines and worry some (yet again) that The Episcopal Church, if not the Anglican Communion, is at last collapsing.

As I watch the angst-ridden scampering and posturing, I keep returning in my prayers to that prescient phrase from the Night Prayer in A New Zealand Prayer Book:

“It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.”

This defines not only what’s been going recently in ecclesiastical circles, but in the greater world of markets and global economics. That world is now becoming thread-bare, revealing underneath it the deeper threads of Advent: the recognition that things as we have known them are coming to an end. John the Baptist is calling us into the spooky wilderness across the Jordan. We are like Mary as an angel shows up in our chamber to announce we will carry impending judgment in the form of a tiny child. We are like Joseph when we are confronted with righteous plans shattered by inescapable scandal, and then we must try to make a compassionate decision.

It took me until this Advent to realize that anxiety – far from being a perennial nuisance – is an essential part of this season. It coincides with all the world collapsing, the failure of sound reason, the growing darkness, and all our best-made plans falling to pieces. Advent anxiety connects with our most profound fears that we don’t really have it figured out, whatever “it” is. Advent anxiety unwinds our sorry identity with our work or our success or our overinflated sense of virtue and self-righteousness. And it reveals the bread of anxiety we have been eating quietly and thoughtlessly all this year.

In our parish, our petitions each Sunday begin with these words: “As we wait. . .” Not even “As we prepare. . .” seems quite right, for anxiety paralyzes some of us spirituality this time of year. We can barely pray our way out of the gloom, let alone exalt the valleys and lay the mountains low. There are many ways to wait, after all, and one of them is with great anxiety.

But I wonder at the bread of anxiety, as it courses through us individually and as a community, leaving us necessarily empty and hollow. It shakes loose all of the indigestible and half-baked idolatries that have consumed and filled us to his point. It breaks our hearts open and creates a yawning chasm of need for true comfort and reassurance. It gives free reign to our skepticism, doubts, and bewilderment and reveals the carefully hidden shadows in and among us for all the world and even God to see and perhaps heal.

In a deep way, Advent anxiety opens up a womb among us for the Christ-child to enter. So far from rejecting it, we must move through it, if we are to embrace the peace of Christmas and the new life that it promises for a world of endings all around us.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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