The Barrel
  1st Sunday in Advent 
December 3, 2000
When the holidays bring no joy
Luke 21:25-36
The Rev. John H. Pavelko
It's the season to be jolly, right? Well, what if you aren't? What if sounds, sights and smells of Christmas make you want to deck someone not just some halls? Are you eligible for replacing Jim Carey in the next sequel to Dr Seuss's story or should we start calling you Ebenezer? 

The truth of the matter is that the holidays are very difficult times for a great many people. Fred will be celebrating his first Christmas with his wife? After 40 years of marriage he is missing the most important person in his life. Tom and Sally will spend this Christmas thinking about their son who is in jail serving a prison term. Mary will only get to see her children Christmas morning. They will be spending the afternoon and evening with their father and his new wife. John still does not know how to break the news to his wife. She has made plans for some really expensive toys for the children She also wants to replace the living room furniture but John has already been warned that his company will be downsizing next year and he could be the first one to go.

These and others all have a legitimate reason to be sad this holiday season. While everyone around them is celebrating the season to be merry, they have a sorrow that overshadows the joy. What are they to do?

Each year newspaper columnists write articles about how people celebrate Christmas but also about how some people have to cope with depression during the Christmas season. They usually interview noted psychologists and medical doctors and solicit their advice. The columnists will create lists that are striking similar. With minor modifications the suggestions will include:1

1. Spending time with other people 
2. Exercising 
3. Take a holiday vacation 
4. Avoid alcohol 
5. Reduce the sugar in your diet 
6. Stay busy 
7. Give flowers in memory of the person you are missing 
8. Help others

If you notice, the list focuses on activity, staying busy, on doing. The emphasis is on keeping the mind busy so that it cannot dwell on the problem or circumstance that is making a person depressed. The list merely offers a temporary solution. A person will not be able to stay busy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There will come a time when the activities cease and they must face the reality of their lives. They can run for a brief period from difficulties and problems but they cannot hide indefinitely. We must develop better methods of not only overcoming "holiday blues" but depression in general. The "holiday blues" are only the symptom of a much deeper problem in our society-depression. While one person in twenty is medically diagnosed with some form of depression, one psychologist has suggested that a majority of all Americans suffer from the disease during their lives.2 Fifteen percent of the people who suffer from a severe form of depression will commit suicide. Money definitely does not buy happiness. Depression occurs three times more frequently in higher socioeconomic groups. 

The first step in overcoming the holiday blues is to recognize that our emotional state is largely a matter of choice. Toward the end of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln was recorded to have said, "Most people are about as happy as they choose to be." Lincoln understood this because he was a man who endured much anguish in his life. As a young man his fiancé died. He lost nearly every political election he ever entered. At one point in his life, he even contemplated suicide. His efforts to untie a nation only produced a bloody war but even during those final years of conflict, he chose to be happy and obtained an inner joy and peace.3
In his book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, the great Anglican preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes:

We are living in days and times of uncertainty, and  it may well be that the first and greatest lesson we all may have to learn is to know how to live without allowing circumstances to affect our inner peace and joy. And yet perhaps there was never a time in the history of the world when it was so difficult to learn this lesson as it is today4

Throughout the gospels, Jesus reminds his disciples that they are not to let the circumstances of life dictate their emotional state. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount he warned them that they would be persecuted for living out his teaching but they were to "rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. (Luke 6:23) Rejection, even punishment was not to control how they feel or how they act. They must have an inner joy that dominates their feelings. Even death should not bring sorrow or grief. When Jairus was told that his daughter had died, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue "Do not be afraid, just believe..." (Luke 8:49) And later he told his disciples that they were not to worry about whether they had enough to eat, or drink or clothes to wear, because "life is more than food and the body, more than clothes. (Luke 12:22) And this thought is central to the passage under consideration today. 
Jesus has been talking about the cataclysmic event that would soon overtake the nation of Israel. Solders would surround the city of Jerusalem. Her citizens would be fleeing to the hills to escape the blood bath and carnage that was about to occur. Eugene Peterson paraphrases vs. 25,26 to read:

It will seem like all hell has broken loose-sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers that be quaking.5

Even when all these things are happening, Jesus warns the disciples that they are to be careful so that their hearts are not weighed down. The option is theirs. They have the choice. They can either choose to be "weighed down" by the disasters going on around them or they can choose to stand faithful.

The second step in overcoming the "holiday blues" is to adjust our expectations. We live in a consumer oriented society. Christmas has become the one holiday that glorifies, celebrates, honors, and embellishes a spend now, enjoy now self gratification attitude of our society. This attitude should not surprise us if we consider the history of the holiday. It was started in the fourth century. The church leaders were distraught that the faithful continued to celebrate the festival of Saturnalia, a Roman holiday marked by uncontrolled feasting. They designated December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the four weeks preceding the event as a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for the holiday. It did not take long for the gods of consumerism to re-exert their influence and return the holiday to its origins under the disguise of generosity.

One of the chief sources for the "holiday blues" is the gulf between our expectations for the holiday and its reality. We expect the dinners, the gift giving, and the general merriment of the season to lift our spirits. When that does not happen a general malaise sets in. What we fail to realize is that happiness can never be found in material trappings of Christmas. In his book entitled, How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, Alan Durning notes that 23 centuries ago Aristotle wrote that the avarice of humanity is insatiable. The famous Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy once echoed Aristotle's sentiments: 
"seek among men, from beggar to millionaire, one who is contented with his lot, and you will not find one such in a thousand....Today we must buy an overcoat and galoshes, tomorrow, a watch and a chain; the next day we must install ourselves in an apartment with a sofa and a bronze lamp; then  we must have carpets and velvet gowns; then a house, horses and carriages, paintings and decorations." 

Lewis Lapham who made a fortune in the oil business during the 19th century, conducted an informal survey on how much money people would need to make them happy. Nearly everyone agreed that if they just earned twice their present salary they could be content. The man who made $15,000 a year was sure that his sorrow would vanish if he just made $30,000 and the man who made $1 million knew that he would be content if he only he made $2 million. "Nobody," Lampham concluded ever has enough."6

Until we are willing to cease from finding our satisfaction and fulfillment in the pleasures or this world, we will constantly be plagued by a general state of depression and anxiety. 

While our emotional well-being is largely a matter of choice, it is not easily altered with the snap of the fingers or the reciting of a catchy cliché. A quick prayer offered at the start of the day will not transform sorrow into joy. Nor will a Bible verse read before bedtime suddenly alter our perspective on life. 

Jesus told his disciples to be careful. Other translators record the words, "Be on your guard" whatever the translation the message that is conveyed is one of long endurance. Change does not happen quickly, or without effort. Just as an athlete requires long and demanding training sessions to prepare his or her body to run in the Olympic so also does the spiritual life. Eugene Peterson entitled his book on the Psalm, "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction." The title communicates the difficult and the demands of the spiritual life. The third step toward overcoming the holiday blues requires a disciplined and persistent spiritual life. Prayer, Bible study, fasting, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines must become more than activities we know we should be doing. They must be regular habits in our life.

I tend to be somewhat cautious in my approach to Christmas, not because I am a Scrooge, although I have been accused of having such an attitude. My hesitation is toward the time required for all the activities. School events, church pageants, family dinners, and holiday preparations have a way of consuming our time. It is difficult to find time to pray, to meditate, and to read the Scriptures. Yet, if those spiritual exercises are not part of our holiday celebration than we will become vulnerable to the holiday blues. 

Some people are guarding their attitude toward the excess of the holidays by including some alternative gifts in their shopping carts. While reaching this sermon, I noticed an ad on Christianity Today's web page. The caption read, "What to get someone who has everything." Then through the magic of java script a line was drawn through the word everything and the word nothing appeared. When I double clicked on the ad, I was taken to Food for the Poor's, Christmas Catalogue7 where I could purchase a chickens for a poor family in someone's name. My relative who has everything would have the satisfaction of knowing that a family's life was made just a little better because they did not get a gift that they did not need.
Other families are setting limits for the amount of money they will spend on Christmas presents. Some will make simple gifts instead of buying expensive ones. Others will spend time in a soup kitchen to provide food for the hungry. The activities vary but each are authentic attempts to free the person from the enslaving grip of the holiday celebration.

The holidays come and go with frightening speed. The Thanksgiving leftovers are not even consumed before the Christmas dinner is cooking. Unless we are willing to careful with our time in the days to come we can easily be overcome by the holiday blues. We will feel overwhelmed and out of control. But our happiness is our choice. It will come only if we are willing to adjust our attitudes away from the insatiable spirit acquisitions. It will require a disciplined effort and doing some activities that truly display the spirit of Christmas. But if we are willing to put in the time and make the effort we will replace the holiday blues with "the satisfaction of knowing that we are celebrating the season in a way consistent with our deepest beliefs, having followed the peaceful paths and the wonderful ways of the God of our salvation."8

1 Jennifer Safer, "Holiday Blues," Online WebMD, November 22, 1999, Online: 
2 Frank Minirth and Paul Meier, Happiness is a Choice, Second Edition, (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House, 1994), 21.
3 Minirth and Meier, 14.
4 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 281.
5 Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs CO: NavPress, 1993), 172. 
6 Alan Thein Durning, How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, (W. Norton & Company, 1992) quoted in New Renaissance magazine Vol.3, No.3 Online: 
7 Online:
8 Homiletics, "Hazardous Holidays", December 3, 2000, Online: 


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