Anxiety & Christmas with Barth
In the Torrey household, we celebrate the full twelve days of Christmas. Though frankly, we are still working out how that looks within our home. So in the spirit of that celebration, I read another Christmas sermon from Barth's Deliverance to the Captives. It is an interesting experience reading Christmas sermons "after" Christmas, so it should be no surprise that a pertinent Christmas sermons would reach through time and accost me.
This particular sermon in Deliverance to the Captives was delivered to students in 1957 in the midst of the cold war. Barth was a wartime theologian. Perhaps, only in this context could a Christmas sermons on Philippians 4:5-6 make as much sense as it does. And yet, it is spoken in a way that speaks to all people. Anxiety is something that all people experience. Yet, rarely is the subject spoken of in the context of Christmas. And yet, Barth makes a great connection in tying anxiety to "ceremonial" and not "celebration" type of holidays. Barth speaks with resounding ease about what should be anxious free celebration of Christmas,
"Christmas is an occasion for celebrating and not for ceremonial. Celebrating! This suggests holy days and holidays. We think of vacations, of rest and relaxation, of pausing in the rough-and-tumble and fret of everyday life. In peace of mind we shall celebrate Christmas...A true Christmas celebration is an event that penetrates our hearts in our lives. It takes possession of us and does not relinquish us anymore. We breathe freely and no longer gasp. We are permanently freed from unrest." (102)
As I sit down on my couch, scotch in hand, with the kids snoring, I find myself able to understand Barth's words. The opening of presents is done. The extended-family has departed. The parties and events have ceased. There is a genuine silence in my house. And I must ask myself if we truly celebrated at all this season.
Or was the season wrought with man-made anxiety and trials? It does sometimes seem that the collapsing of Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years into a quadfecta of chaos and responsibility produces more anxiety than celebration — the ceremonial necessity of it all bringing more burdens instead of lifting them. The season bares a heavy burden upon those who are willing to subject themselves to it. This experience — which I presume we all have had — goes together so well with the following portion of Barth's sermon,
"When we do have anxiety, we take ourselves so seriously as to imagine that we are able to solve the great problems of life ourselves…We realize —don't we?— The anxiety has a great deal to do with ceremonial. When we are anxious, we get ceremonial. Where there is ceremonial, anxiety lurks backstage." (103)
Anxiety is a self-exalting event. It places us at the top of the responsibility chain. We become, or seem to become, the masters of our own future. And yet in this anxiety, we cannot truly celebrate. Yet, any self-exalting event cannot be Advent or Christmas. The Incarnation is God humbling Himself to become man. Humilty is taught. At the same time, the humility of Jesus Christ teaches us that we are not the masters of our futures. We are not capable of bearing our own burdens. The Incarnation teaches us that Christ bears our burdens. To celebrate Christmas is to make less of ourselves and acknowledge that we do not bear these burdens. Here, the beauty of Advent & Christmas is found.
I will close with this portion of Barth's sermon,
"The invitation to a genuine, anxiety-free celebration is extended by the Lord who is at hand. It is the Lord for his birth the angels announced to the shepherds at Bethlehem, he 'who is Christ the Lord in the city of David.' The Lord whose star is not only a thousand times but infinitely more important than the successful Russian Sputnik and it's unsuccessful American counterpart! The Lord of heaven and earth, the eternal God who deemed it not too high and not too low to become like us so that we may become his. The Lord who in his life and death as a man loved the world and reconciled unto himself." (104)