Even the newest parish minister is familiar with the “Holiday Blues”, or Holiday Depression Syndrome as the experts call it. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, many people experience increased or intensified feelings of sadness. This is experienced by Christians and non-Christians. These feelings are primarily caused by a sense of relational loss:
While these feelings of loss can be forgotten throughout the year, they are sharply brought to the forefront during the Holidays. We are bombarded by images, movies, stories, and real life examples of (seemingly) idyllic, happy homecomings and families. Every Facebook post, Christmas card, and Holiday Commercial just drives the knife in deeper. All of this is made worse by the additional guilt, jealousy, and bitterness that comes from feeling sad when you should feel the happiest.
How can the Church (clergy and lay) bring the Gospel’s comfort to those suffering from the “Holiday Blues”? Certainly, it is always wise to help them see the idol they can make of relationships, but that’s not the only comfort. In his chapter entitled “The Great Gathering” in Practical Religion, Victorian Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle reminds us of another comforting dimension of the Gospel: the great gathering of believers at Christ’s return. Mr. Ryle’s Relevance
Before diving into what Mr. Ryle has to say, I want to answer a question that may be in many of your minds: “What does an English man who lived and ministered over 100 years ago have anything to offer us in the American 21st Century?”
The fact of the matter is that his generation invented the modern Christmas we now celebrate. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a robust middle class with discretionary income and more affordable luxury goods. This, combined with the Victorian glorification of the family as the center of happiness, created the romantic image of a jovial family sitting by hearth and tree, opening presents while drinking mulled wine. This was canonized in print by Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol and in the picturesque, romantic etchings of Hablot Knight Brown and Robert Seymour (the Norman Rockwells of Victorian Britain). These descriptions of Christmas all show gatherings of loved ones enjoying each other: that’s what made Christmas special for the Victorians, and that’s still what our “Christmas Culture” tells us today.
Mr. Ryle’s Comfort
Like today, this idealized Christmas was already causing many people deep sadness and loneliness in Ryle’s day. He begins “The Great Gathering” by describing the expectations and true pleasures of a traditional Christmas: parties, family gatherings, and reunions of old friends. Then he quickly turns the reader’s attention to a deep sadness and loneliness many experience at Christmas time. He writes,
The happiest parties sometimes contain uncongenial members: the merriest meetings are only for a very short time. Moreover, as the years roll on, the hand of death makes painful gaps in the family circle. Even in the midst of Christmas merriment we cannot help remembering those who have passed away.
The longer we live, the more we feel to stand alone. The old faces will rise before the eyes of our minds, and the old voices will sound in our ears, even in the midst of holiday mirth and laughter… (There) are many, I suspect, who reach middle age, who would not admit, if they spoke the truth, that there are sorrowful things inseparably mixed up with a Christmas party.
Later in the chapter, he appeals to those who have no such relationships. He speaks to those who “feel lonely and desolate as every December” because there is no one to “open your heart too”. Could not both of these describe many in our own ministry spheres (including ourselves)?
What is Ryle’s antidote to this melancholy? Building on the promise given in 1 Thessalonians 4:17-18, he calls us to remember the great gathering of believers when Christ returns. Specifically, he points his readers who are suffering this sadness to consider four truths about that day:
(1) Even though we are separated from each other, there will be a day when all believers are together in one place,
(2) When we are together, all theological disagreements and broken relationships between believers will be no more; all believers will live in true peace and fellowship.
(3) No brother or sister in Christ will be absent, and
(4) it will be a gathering that will never end.
Ryle proposes that when a Christian “looks up and looks forward” to these truths, the Christian will find comfort and consolation in the darkest moments. There will be a day when we will be reunited with our family and friends who have died in the faith. Not only that, but any old divisions of theology or personality will be no more. One can truly enjoy the other without fear of argument or anger. Finally, and (I argue) of greatest comfort to Mr. Ryle, this great gathering won’t be spoiled by ending. As he says poetically, “The hour cometh, and shall soon be here, when ‘good-bye’ and ‘farewell’ shall be words that are laid aside and buried forever.” The great “sting” of parting will be no more. Christ’s wedding feast will be the great Christmas family celebration we’ve always hungered and thirsted for. Our current sadness and sense of loss is real, but it will be wiped away forever never to return to “spoil” Christmas again!
I conclude with this. Ryle’s words aren’t just a comfort for those I serve. They are a comfort to my family and me. My 99 year-old grandmother died in July. She was an ever present and enormous piece of my family’s Christmas. Her “forgotten cookies”, fruit ambrosia, fudge, corn pie, and bread-and-butter pickles fueled Christmas Eve and Christmas day festivities. Her hand cross-stitched, personalized stockings were (and are) our most prized Christmas decorations. She was always full of love, joy, and pride as she heard her grandchildren and great-grandchildren share the joy of Christ born to us sinners in innumerable pageants.
As I began to decorate for Christmas, I felt a new melancholy I had not expected. As Ryle predicted, this first Christmas without my grandmother had darkened my joy.
What hope is there for me? Mr. Ryle knows: the great gathering when Jesus returns. There will be a day when she will be ever present and the thought of “good bye” will be a distant memory.
–This post was written by guest contributor Rev. Hamilton Smith, Pastor and Lead Planter of St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant S.C. Hamilton is currently pursuing his Doctor of Ministry, with a focus on J.C. Ryle’s Reformation theology for today. You can read Ryle’s sermon, “The Great Gathering,” for yourself by clicking here.
 Hearn, Michael Patrick, Ed., The Annotated Christmas Carol (Norton and Company: New York, 2004).
 Not only does Mr. Ryle continually come back to this truth as an application of 1 Thessalonians, but he also buried two wives by 1861. He was also theologically estranged from his son, Herbert.
This post was written by Rob Sturdy