Mental illness does not discriminate.
Fortunately, nor does God.
Our Christian faith speaks into our hopes, our dreams, our joys. Events in our Christian calendar regularly remind us of this, events like Christmas: a time to celebrate new life, family and love.
A less discussed reality, probably because its uncomfortable to do so, is that our Christian faith speaks equally into our fears, our vulnerabilities, our shortcomings.
As we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour at Christmas, acknowledging our own salvation now possible, we often neglect to recognise the circumstances of Christ’s birth or what his birth says about the nature of our God. As British theologian Paula Gooder writes in her new book about Advent and Christmas, “The birth narratives are about the mindblowing, brain-boggling truth that the God who shaped the universe into existence was prepared to be born as a tiny, vulnerable baby.
This God trusted his whole wellbeing to a young girl, who had never had a baby before and wasn’t even married. This God chose a ludicrously risky means of redeeming the world he loved so much” (2015, p. xiii). As Pope Francis reminded us recently, “Christ was born into poverty”.
Modernity’s obsession with perfection, with flawlessness, with material success, which these days reaches an abhorrent climax at Christmas, says more about our fallenness than God’s abundance. In focusing all our energies on such earthly, human priorities we have, gradually over the last 100 years, created a society, communities, that marginalise those for whom these priorities are simply not possible, simply not their lived reality.
People with a mental illness, people with a disability, people with addictions, people economically oppressed, all find themselves, far too regularly, on the outer, on the margins, of society.
As the birth of our very own Lord and Saviour illustrates, welcoming, loving, building up such people, despite their manifest human vulnerabilities, is at the core of our Christian faith. God made Godself known in human form through Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus of Nazareth made God known through his ministry, death and resurrection – all of which are grounded in his birth, in God’s offering of Godself as a “tiny, vulnerable baby”. And today, we make God known by living, by being in the spiritual presence of Jesus in our world. In this context, our actions and choices are measured by how we respond to vulnerability, how we respond to “the tiny, vulnerable baby” that resides in each every person we encounter.
Such an incarnational theology may offer a welcome expression of God’s nature for those for whom mental illness is a reality and for those for whom caring for a loved one with a mental illness is a reality.
Underpinning modernity’s desire for perfection, flawlessness and material success lies unbridled individualism – a deeply held strongly pursued desire to create our own unique existence. On one level, this makes sense. We are all ‘different’, if we determine ‘difference’ by comparing skin colour, religious creed, language, body shape, culture or dreams and aspirations. But these are earthly metrics, human instruments of measurement.
They are not God’s priorities, not God’s measuring tools.
All creation is connected
St Francis of Assisi drew our attention to the fact that all creation is connected; all creation is sacramental in so far as it draws our attention and points to the creator, points to God.
His love of all creation, all animals and the environment, was not a simple, romantic mysticism; in all living beings St Francis recognised the presence of God. Moreover, in his ministry among the lepers, the outcasts of his time, St Francis was drawn to the “tiny, vulnerable baby” within; he was drawn to the Christ-child, to the broken body that would one day be crucified, to the imbued spirit of God in each and every one of us.
Likewise, in our time and place, Christ invites us to recognise and love the imbued spirit of God in those with a mental illness. Not in a patronising, paternalistic fashion; rather, by acknowledging that the spirit of God resides in people with a mental illness just as equally and just as strongly as it resides in us all.
The bodies or minds of people with a mental illness might look or function differently, but our spirit is one and the same; we all live, and breathe and have our being in God.
Christian friendship and hospitality among people with a mental illness should not be seen as ‘outreach’ to those with ‘special needs’; this serves only to further promulgate ‘difference’. Rather, Christian friendship and hospitality among people with a mental illness is our opportunity to recognise and celebrate the presence of God’s spirit in our world, working in, through and among us. In welcoming and loving people with a mental illness, just as St Francis welcomed and loved the leper, we recognise the presence of “the tiny, vulnerable baby” in all our brothers and sisters; in so doing, we honour God’s presence among us and offer praise and thanksgiving for the “mind-blowing, brain-boggling truth” that even as the creator of the world, God was willing to make Godself profoundly vulnerable out of love for us.
A dark reality
Amidst the great joy, hope and love of Christmas lurks a dark reality. As we gather to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour, many are left to wallow in the shadowy world of mental illness; paradoxically living in overwhelming depths of darkness while many of us experience the sawing heights of joy, love and celebration. In fact, presentations at public hospital emergency departments for those with a mental illness are often highest during the so-called ‘festive season’.
In the lived reality of those with a mental illness at Christmas time, lies the lived reality of Christian faith; that is, in our human vulnerability, resides divine strength; with great highs come great lows; in acknowledging the presence of the Christ-child, God’s spirit, in all our brothers and sisters, we acknowledge ourselves, we acknowledge we too are created in the image of God; we too live in the same spiritual realm as those with a mental illness. Our bodies function differently, but our spirit is one.
Mental illness is one of life’s mysteries and challenges… so too is God. Cradling them together, as both/and rather than either/or, provides a unique opportunity for us all to usher God’s love into our world, whose spiritual presence is physically manifest in “the tiny, vulnerable baby” within each of us.
About the Author
Daniel Hobbs is a Managing Editor of News in Mind and is the current Curate at Cleveland Anglican Parish.
Together with his wife Kylie he founded News in Mind to reduce stigma of mental illness in the community.