I love reading advent reflections during the days leading up to Christmas, but I always find myself wishing there was more after Christmas. I want some follow-up. I want to know what happens next to our little Holy Family.
Week One: Jesus cries a lot. Mary, a new mother, is having trouble pacifying him. She wants to breast feed, but she can’t seem to make enough milk. Living on the run from Herod, she and Joseph aren’t getting the nutrients they need, causing Maternal Depletion for Mary (this is when a mother is unable to produce the essential nutrients for her milk supply, due to her own malnourishment). However, Mary doesn’t know this and blames herself for being unable to supply for her perfect child.
Week Two: The man who owns the barn where Jesus was born discovers Mary, Joseph, and Jesus living in it without permission. He’s angry at this poor refugee family and wants to kick them out, but the grace of God changes his heart. He and Joseph strike up a deal that the family can use his stable for shelter if Joseph agrees to do some carpentry work for him. Because he’s feeling generous, the owner offers to feed them his scraps, as well.
Fast forward a few months: Mary and Joseph know that Herod’s men are looking for them, and they know they must move on soon. Mary is dealing with the effects of Postpartum Depression, but doesn’t have the words to describe it. Not to mention, if she did have the words, the great shame she would feel if she admitted that she did not always feel fit to be a mother, the one thing women were good for. Joseph is feeling anxious about leading his wife and newborn onward through the desert toward Egypt. He notices Mary seems to be suffering in ways he cannot understand. As the provider for his family, he feels inadequate at the thought that he has no idea how to support her. They argue more often, it seems, and it feels like Jesus never stops crying.
They begin their move toward Egypt: The desert is not an inviting place for a vulnerable baby and struggling family. On bad days, they desperately pray they will make it through another sandstorm. On good days, they only need to worry about staying alive in the scorching desert sun. At night, Joseph has a difficult time sleeping, as he’s constantly on the lookout for thieves that might prey upon his family. As the Holy Family moves through their days as best they can, the first years of Jesus’ life are marked by heavy parental and environmental stress.
Any quick google search will tell you that environmental and parental stress have profound impacts on a child’s development. In mental health circles, this is broadly referred to as, ‘childhood trauma,’ and almost every human in existence has dealt with some effect of this concept. Most, if not all, research on childhood trauma indicates that it is the leading cause of mental health disorders. Yes, Jesus was a perfect human, meaning he was sinless. However, the whole point of Jesus was that, despite being sinless, he was privy to the full experience of human suffering. Why, then, would he be exempt from mental health issues? My hunch is that he wasn’t.
I’m not here to diagnose Jesus Christ with a mental health disorder. Nor am I here to claim this is the Gospel truth and enter into some sort of theological debate. I’m here to invite you into this imaginative prayer space with me, in hopes that it can offer you the healing it offers me.
So please, come on in.
What effects did the hardships Jesus lived through have on his inner life? Mental health wasn’t something anyone talked about in his time, so did he suffer in silence? Did he share his pain with anyone? Did Mary have answers for him when he asked her about his thoughts? Did these big, difficult feelings make him feel isolated, or like there was something significantly wrong with him? Did Joseph tell him that real men don’t cry, as a way of protecting his son from shame? Did Jesus secretly see Mary crying and think it was his fault?
I have spent my entire life thinking that I need to prove that I am worth loving to everyone I care about, and that includes Jesus. It’s been the biggest roadblock in our relationship: I see Jesus as another person whose love I need to earn. Sure, I heard all those great things like, “Jesus loves you no matter what you do. You never need to prove yourself to God. Jesus already decided you are worth dying for,” etc. That was all cool to believe in theory, but I didn’t believe it in my gut.
I’m really good at beating myself up. I’m really good at minimizing any good thing I do and blowing up any little mistake I make. I’m really good at consistently reminding myself that I am still not ‘good enough’ (whatever that means). Realizing that Jesus likely suffered from some form of mental health issues, as well as Mary and Joseph, truthfully, makes Jesus wildly accessible to me. No longer do I need to convince him that my very big emotions are real and valid. No longer do I need to try to prove myself as worthy of love when I can’t get out of bed to go to the kitchen, let alone to church. No longer do I need to apologize profusely and then get mad at myself when depression makes it really freaking hard to be grateful for all the gorgeous good in my life. No longer do I need to feel like I let God down when I compare myself to all the incredible things the people around me are doing. No. Jesus looks at me, in all his tender compassion, and says, “I get it,” and he means it.
This Jesus who witnessed and lived through his own share of mental health complications understands every second of what I go through. Jesus doesn’t tell me that my mental health disorders are a sign of weakness, like so much of this world would have me believe. He doesn’t tell me that my mental health disorders are my fault. He doesn’t tell me that my mental health disorders are some punishment for ‘just not being good enough.’ He doesn’t tell me that if I just prayed more, my pain would go away. Instead, he shows up for me through all of these hard days without blame, shame, or disappointment. He doesn’t do this just to be kind. He doesn’t do it because that’s what he’s ‘supposed to do.’
He does it because he’s been there, he knows this deep pain, and he doesn’t want me to suffer through it alone.