‘Blue Monday’ is supposedly the most depressing day of the year. It falls in the third week of January and its misery is attributed to a concatenation of circumstances: the January credit card bill hits the doormat, the weather is lousy, New Year’s resolutions have imploded and Christmas cheer is a distant memory (especially if you kept Christmas throughout Advent). It is claimed that this peak of depression has been scientifically calculated. In fact, much of it turns out to be the fruit of research commissioned by travel companies assessing their booking patterns.
It is easy to be censorious about what makes other people happy. I count myself fortunate that I have never wanted anything so badly from a shop as to queue for it at 8am on Boxing Day, and I never know what kind of summer holiday I want by mid-January. But I would be a fool to deny that I am still influenced in many ways by a culture of consumerism which is a kind of prolonged medication of reality. Behind all that grim-sounding, medieval tradition about detachment from the world’s vanities is a perennial truth which our own age and culture fears: that Man is a spiritual being and will therefore never be made happy or complete by what wealth can amass. Our approach to the hangover of consumerism is the “hair-of-the-dog” solution.
There can also be a spiritual corollary to Blue Monday, which is to do with the richness of the spiritual diet we have had over Christmas and our need for distraction. With stars and angels, Mary and Joseph, and shepherds and Magi, we are in comfortable territory spiritually. It is easy to relate to Christ in a manger and, significantly, it is easy both to visualise and be emotionally affected by the mysteries we have recently celebrated. By mid-January we are back to the usual sort of Sunday Gospel: the adult Jesus preaching and healing. We find it more demanding and less emotionally satisfying.
We forget that liturgical time finesses 30 years of Christ’s hidden life into a week in early January. In real time, the shepherds were going back to their flocks and the angels to heaven. The Magi departed and the Holy Family had to flee a murderous tyrant. This is the real aftermath of the crib scene, but it doesn’t really impinge greatly on our consciousness of Christmas as full of warmth and light. If it did, it might comfort us with its message that, even for the most spiritually adroit, it is not possible to live your life on constant highs. It is a comfort to be reminded that, as a proportion of our experience of him, God’s presence is not a matter of blinding rapture. In fact, no human could sustain it if it were. We may, I think, safely assume that Mary and Joseph struggled with the transition from the adoring attentions of shepherds and strange potentates with mysterious gifts to the terrifying status of refugees. They must have wondered at the contrast between the heavenly portents of their child’s birth and the squalor surrounding it, and even whether they had failed in some way and these apparent reversals might have been avoided with more effort on their part.
It takes a particular kind of faith to worship a God who can arrange the stars but seems unwilling to secure accommodation. This isn’t meant to sound flippant, for we ourselves must live with the same conundrum: that while God sometimes does the most extraordinary things in our lives, he sometimes doesn’t do the very ordinary things we feel would be immediately helpful. In His promise to be totally present, he can yet remain staggeringly hidden behind the very humanness he has embraced.
To treasure the presence of God in the everyday and ordinary was the most common experience for Mary and Joseph, outweighing the times of glorious, explicit epiphany and theophany. Their task was to become accustomed to the nature of God’s presence in their lives. Only in the memory of the luminous times could the daily reality be comprehended. We, too, must expect just such a closeness. It is part of the mystery of his taking our flesh and is the fulfilment, not the negation, of his glory in our midst. We must learn to live by faith in his promise that he is with us to the end of the ages, however it feels this Monday.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/1/15)