Keeping Christ in Christmas, part 1: Hearing Voices

Advent: a time of anticipation, preparation, and expectation for something yet to come. In the weeks before Christmas, Christians mark the time of Advent. The four Sundays before Christmas Day are meant to draw Christians to look for what is not seen, to hope for something more, to anticipate good news.

There are those for whom Christmas simply marks a birthday. Indeed, December 25 was established as the day to remember the birth of Jesus of Nazareth by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 336 CE. If December 25 is merely the anniversary of the birth of a child, well, I suppose there’s merit in that. But the Advent season can’t be reduced to something as simplistic as getting ready for a birthday. In Advent, we anticipate and expect the coming of the Christ in our lives and world — the Christ, the mystically anointed one.

Advent challenges us to look deeply at the mystery of life to see that the presence of the Holy One permeates all aspects of life. We rarely see life — our lives and the lives of those around us — as permeated with a Presence greater than we can imagine. Yet, in Advent, we are invited to live fully into this mystery. Yes, it is a mystery because it’s something we can’t fully comprehend but grow into and embrace.

The Christian gospels of Matthew and Luke present two very different sets of stories about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. There isn’t much in common in these stories other than the actual birth of the baby. But there are some common themes. In the stories of Matthew and Luke, we find that the main characters including Mary and Joseph as well as some others came to know and understand things about the birth of Jesus by hearing voices, seeing visions, and having oddly specific dreams. While today, Christians consider these events as forms of revelation when they pertain to Biblical characters, that’s not at all how we understand people hearing voices, seeing things that no one else can see, or being directed to act by a set of dreams when it comes to ourselves and the people around us.

For some months each year, one of my neighbors has a granddaughter who stays with her. The granddaughter is an adult who does what she can around the house when she visits. She often walks in the neighborhood or up a few blocks to the local grocery or sandwich shop. When I see her, we chat. If I’m not in my yard, it sometimes takes her a few moments to recognize me. But inevitably, when we talk, she remembers who I am. Sometimes, when she’s walking, I notice that she talks to herself. It seems as though someone else is with her, but I can’t see this other person. The woman is schizophrenic. She stays with her grandparents when she undergoes medication adjustments or treatment. Yet, her presence in the neighborhood frightens some of the neighbors. Sometimes, her behavior is odd. She talks to herself. She seems to hear voices. She fixes her gaze in a way to suggest she sees things that are not there. Neighbors wonder: are the children safe when she’s around? If she happens to wander into one neighbor’s yard, the police are always called — even though she’s just walking on the grass rather than on the street because of the lack of side walk. Her presence has caused quite a stir among some neighbors.

Whether it’s in one’s own neighborhood or in day to day life, we each encounter people living with some form of mental illness. For some, it’s a serious life-long illness like my neighbor’s granddaughter. For others, it’s some form of anxiety or depression. All too often, mental illness is not properly treated, generally misunderstood, and stigmatized.

Could it be that to Keep Christ in Christmas challenges us to view others living with mental illness with compassion? Can we open ourselves to the presence of the Divine when we encounter people living with mental illness? Do we have the willingness to let go of our fears or apprehensions in order to discover that Christ is born in them just as the Christ is born in all people?

Just as Mary spoke to the angel Gabriel and Joseph communicated with God in dreams, so too those living with mental illness experience something Divine in their lives. We Keep Christ in Christmas when we anticipate Emmanuel in others, including those living with mental illness.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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