Keeping the liturgical year may be conducive to better health.
Allow me to explain.
We’ve known for some time that SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – causes lots of people to experience mild depression during the winter months, when days are shorter and the weather cold and grey. Just as it is no accident that people feel a “spring” in their step this time of year, with the abundance of sunshine and blooming flowers, so too in the darkening days of fall do many people experience a dimming of their mood. Recent research takes the relationship between the seasons and mental health farther, suggesting that waning sunlight and advancing darkness can have more serious mental health implications than previously thought. Seasoned pastors – pun confessed – understand this and are prepared to deal with parishioners’ angst come November.
But what about pastors’ own vulnerability to the grey days, with their attendant increase in demands that time and creativity be spent planning for Thanksgiving, Advent and Epiphany? Have you ever felt your energy begin to dissipate at the mere thought of trying to explain to your congregation why Gospel lections for Advent begin apocalyptically? The Gospel for December 1, 2013, is Matthew 24, “one taken, one left.” Get ready.
Perhaps it’s time that pastors thought of keeping the liturgical year as a means of self-care, especially during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle. Some years ago I wrote a liturgy for Longest Night (always either December 21 or 22) in which I confessed my own discomfort with the “tidings of comfort and joy” that cultural Christmas demands we feel, and unleashed upon the congregation the fruits of my historical-critical research by noting that Bethlehem doubtless stank when Jesus was born. They loved it; some wept; I could scarcely make it through the Great Thanksgiving; the Holy Spirit triumphed.
And I was healed. By confessing the power of the darkness, owning that Luke’s birth narrative is scarcely so sanitized as we prefer to think, announcing that Incarnation made Mary scream in pain, and grasping that all of this is what Emmanuel – God with us – means, I was changed. Writing the liturgy displaced the darkness for me. It was unanticipated self-care, prevenient grace for us Wesleyans.
In this joyful season of Eastertide, when new life is erupting all around us, take advantage of the long days and fresh energy to think ahead to the long nights of Advent and Epiphany. It is not selfish, pastor, to ask yourself what you need in a particular liturgical season, in order first to receive the grace you have been called to sign and proclaim to the congregation. It is not selfish; it is responsible stewardship. Design those liturgies for yourself, too, and let the Spirit take care of the rest. She will.