Advent, these weeks leading to Christmas, with their invitation to enter into longing, is here again. Having appreciated this liturgical season for many years, I’m game.
I have a handful of devotional books that usher me into the theme of longing and related practices. I like the marking of Advent with candles and reflection. I appreciate the idea of being prepared for something.
And, still, I find longing to be sort of awkward in experience.
Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo
Often, longing isn’t particularly socially acceptable. I remember the twelve years post-college that I spent longing to be married. No one was surprised to learn that a life partner was a desire of my heart. No one was surprised that the intensity of that longing grew as the years ticked by.
I could show my longing to friends--just not all the time. I found myself calculating how often and with what intensity it was appropriate to talk about my hope for a future family. I had a vague sense of the social repercussions were I to become “that friend” whose unmet hopes were always in the room with us.
Longing seems to conflict with contentment and the practice of embracing the present moment. Those virtues and practices feel cool in my social circles. I want to be—and look like I’m being—at peace in all circumstances. How does that quality exist alongside longing?
Actually, this dynamic may be why I’m drawn to Advent. During Advent, it is cool to long. Longing is the appropriate activity of this time. We can bring it out and rehearse it in December.
Yet the longing we practice in Advent is meant to be a longing we carry at all times, a longing for the clear presence of God with us in each moment of our days, and a longing that one day—soon, Lord—God will come again, as promised, to set all things right.
In his famous “Weight of Glory” sermon, C.S. Lewis talks about the experience of longing in everyday life. He posits that our being made in the image of God leaves us with an imprinted desire for heaven, for eternal relationship with God. We can be led to that desire through our desires for other good but lesser things.
I think I experience what Lewis describes, but if I’m not careful, I attribute my longings to the sappiness of mid-life. I might mention it with a self-conscious laugh and let it pass. I remain aware that most social settings can only hold the weight of so much longing.
This past year I had the chance to sit before an original piece of art: Monet’s huge water lily canvases. I wanted to capture their splendor, in a nearly physical sense, more deeply than seemed possible. In addition to their objective beauty, those paintings are attached to positive emotional memories from my childhood, and I wanted to hold all of that in a way that wouldn’t dissipate.
Not surprisingly, I’m experiencing something similar with my kids as they near the teenage years. I saw a picture recently of one of them, round-cheeked and toddling, and I again felt an almost physical ache not to lose that little person who still lives somewhere in the emerging young man.
Sentimental? Likely. Sappy? A little. When I can push past the outer and inner awkwardness I experience with longing, though, I sense something deeper.
This longing is a year-round invitation to experience the presence and hope of God’s present and coming kingdom. C.S. Lewis suggests, “These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire…For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
I have a friend who is unashamed in her deep longing for Jesus’ promised return. I love that about her. I never feel awkward in her expression of it. Quite the opposite. I feel stirred to let my own inner longing live, to remember and learn to live in light of my deepest hopes.
Maybe this is the year to not put longing away at Advent’s end.
Michelle Manley likes the space of quiet reflection, reading, and prayer. She enjoys sitting and talking with others, listening for the creative work of God in daily life. Given that, many are surprised to learn that she's an avid sports spectator and fan. She also tackles bike rides and ski slopes occasionally with her nine- and eleven-year-old sons to keep credibility up with them. She is married to Mark and has worked as a pastor at The River Church Community in the areas of Small Group Community and Adult Spiritual Formation for nearly eighteen years.