Around this time every year, I hear stories told and re-told about segments of the general population who don’t understand the meaning of Christmas or who prefer to celebrate Christmas as a secular observance. The stories are usually told by practitioners of organized religion who are offended by the materialism of secular society. Whenever I hear those sorts of stories, I think of Jesus’ prophetic words in today’s Gospel reading. He said, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” (Lk. 21:34)
The Gospel reading is composed of two excerpts from Luke’s version of Jesus’ eschatological discourse. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ prediction of the end of days is transformed slightly in order to account for the delay between his death and his return in glory. Luke instructs his readers to shift their focus away from an indeterminate end and toward their daily responsibilities as believers in this world.
Within the context of the focus on the importance of remaining faithful and spreading the faith now, Luke’s version of the eschatological discourse warns the Church community not to be weighed down by “the anxieties of daily life”. (Lk. 21:34) If I was to take a guess, I would guess that most church-goers identify “the anxieties of daily life” as being worries about relationships, physical health, money or other material goods, or something similar. While these certainly count as among the possible anxieties of daily life, they are not the only possible objects of worry.
The stories about the secularization, or outright rejection, of Christmas also count as “anxieties of daily life.” In fact, one of the popular objects of worry among church-goers is the segment of the population that doesn’t attend church services. Jesus’ warning about “carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life” is directed to his disciples, that is, the faithful. It’s easy to see and judge acts of dissipation and worry in the lives of others, but what about the carousing and drunkenness and anxieties that church-goers embrace in their daily lives?
Jesus’ warning in today’s Gospel reading applies to all worries and anxieties, not only to the worries one might have about the unbelieving world; much of the anxiety of church-goers is related directly to their religious practice. Jesus says unequivocally that all worry and anxiety becomes an obstacle to faith.
It is fashionable to worry about the Church, the Faith, the diminished sense of morality among the general population, and similar issues. These worries are popular, but they are also faithless. All worries and fears are truly “like a trap.” (Lk 21:35) Anxieties and concerns are never satisfied with holding part of one’s attention; they demand one’s entire attention. Worry and fear don’t take up some of one’s time; they demand all of one’s time. As the Gospel says, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Lk. 16:13) It is possible to worry or it is possible to have faith; it is not possible to do both simultaneously.
Worry and anxiety are not redeemed by the fact that they are directed toward the Church. The challenges, real and imagined, that face the Church are calls to repentance and renewed trust in God. When troubles in the Church lead to worry or fear, one has already abandoned faith in favor of one’s personal concerns.
The unchurched aren’t the only people who can fall into “carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life”. (Lk. 21:34) Church-goers can also fall into the trap of being distracted by worries and concerns. At the point that happens, one’s faith has already failed and one is already among the lost. It is a thorough waste of time to worry about some else’s opinion of Christmas, religious practice, or faith. Each person makes their own choices about their lives; worrying cannot alter another person’s choice.
When I hear stories told and re-told about the impiety or iniquity of certain segments of the population, I question the motivation behind such stories. Public worrying about others is almost always a symptom of worry about oneself. The Scriptures warn about the consequences of worry, fear, or anxiety. Jesus said, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” (Lk. 21:34-35) “That day” that can “catch you by surprise like a trap” will happen unexpectedly; it can happen on any day of the week. “That day” will be the one on which you stop believing in order to start worrying.