Our spirituality

An Annual Indicator

I have heard it said that more people are admitted to psychiatric care in the weeks after Christmas than at any other period of the year. Could this be true? If so, why?

John.

Christmas is the culmination of Advent, a month-long season filled with hope. The focus of the daily readings at Mass is the Chosen People waiting in joyful hope for the coming of the Messiah. The figure of John the Baptist looms large in these readings with his promise of something wonderful on the horizon.

As Christmas nears the spotlight turns to Our Lady as the time for her delivery approaches. There is an air of expectancy that keeps increasing until it reaches a climax on Christmas Night. If this hope is frustrated it is not surprising that the end result should turn out to be disappointment and even depression. I am not sure of the statistic you mention but if people already fragile are let down in big numbers at such a high point in the year then the scenario you describe is likely enough.

Joy and Hope
Even in our secularized world where the religious meaning of Christmas has faded from many lives, its promise of better things still lingers on. Its joy and hope are contagious. Dickens captured it well in A Christmas Carol, where the approach of the feast moves the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge to think about others. For the business world it has become the biggest selling point of the year as we all know only too well, literally to our cost. This commercial dimension has become so dominant that people celebrate Christmas even in Asiatic countries where the impact of Christianity is minimal. The whole world wants to get in on the act.

For most of the human race, because of the preponderance of the English language, it is the Mass of Christ (the literal meaning of Christmas) that, unwittingly, is the focus of attention. In the Romance languages like French or Italian it is his birth (Noel or Natale). Could there be some hidden providence in the fact that at least on one occasion each year so many of the human race unconsciously celebrate the Mass of Christ?

Family Life
In a Christian home modeled on that of Bethlehem and Nazareth, Christmas should never be experienced as anything other than a blessing. If depression overtakes an individual or unhappiness a family in the last days of December it probably stems less from what takes place on the 25th than from what was or was not going on in their lives during the other twelve months of the year.

If members of a family make a reasonable effort to be faithful to their baptism through the year by prayer, self-control, mutual forgiveness and recourse to the sacraments they can rest assured that their coming together at Christmas will be experienced as a time of blessing and peace.

Harsh Reality
There is a lot of evidence, however, that this is not the experience in many homes. If the person of Jesus and his liberating teaching are excluded as irrelevant in the lives of baptized Christians, there will be repercussions sooner or later. This often becomes painfully obvious at Christmas when no amount of artificial good cheer can compensate for the void within.

The harsh reality of Christmas for so many, particularly wide-eyed, impressionable children is premature exposure to adult bickering and verbal abuse, frequently ending up in alcohol-fuelled violence.

Archbishop Joseph Cassidy once said that 'the worst thing about excessive drinking is not the men that it makes drunk but the children that it makes afraid'. Such behaviour is a far cry from the wonderful proclamation of the angels at Bethlehem: Glory to God in high heaven and peace on earth to men and women of goodwill.


Glory of Life
Reflecting on this message, St. Irenaeus, one of the early Fathers of the Church, came to understand that God is truly glorified by human beings who are fully alive. Indeed it was to raise all human life to a new level that Jesus came on earth. He would later tell his followers that he came so that 'they might have life and have it in abundance'. If this offer is consistently ignored in the life of an individual or a family, it is very hard for the Lord to share this abundance or make his delightful presence felt at Christmas or indeed at any other time of the year.

As for 'goodwill', St. Therese of Lisieux, who according to many commentators changed from a child into a giant during the night of Christmas, 1886, said that the devil hates nothing more in this world. Satan, known by St. Ignatius of Loyola as the 'enemy of our human nature' is powerless against good-will. He will try every ruse to break it. He knows that it leads to peace, a foretaste of the heaven that he abhors. In a family, if there is basic goodwill towards one another, there will be ongoing happiness during all the months of the year that will only increase at Christmas; otherwise there will not.

A happy Christmas to you!