This time of year sees Americans rushing out to stores to purchase gifts for those they love. Even if the intended recipient knows what gift they are getting, family and friends insist that they wait until Christmas to get their gift. Some families have traditions that allow for a single gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, in order to enhance the already mounting anticipation.
Longing is a part of Advent. Many long simply to open their gifts. But that is not where the Christian tradition of anticipation began. After all, Jesus did not come to grant us all a Nintendo 3DS. So what does the Christian long for? What exactly does it mean to long?
For starters, listen to the Christmas song “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” If you don’t have it, you can download a beautiful rendition here. Often when we listen to Christmas music, we want something poppy or upbeat. That is all good and well, but we miss something when we leave out the songs built upon agony and yearning. Are you listening to the song yet? Pay close attention to the first stanza:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
When Luke writes of the shepherds going to see the newborn Messiah, they weren’t just going to see a baby who would one day be a great man; they were witnessing the beginning stages of humanity’s redemption. Luke’s previous chapter is scattered with references to Isaiah, and I doubt it’s coincidental. The angels who tell Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds about Jesus are not just proclaiming the birth of a man. They were proclaiming the Kingdom of God! This was the beginning! This was what Israel had been waiting for! Isaiah 2: 1-5 and 11:1-16 give us a picture of what this would have meant to those who first greeted Jesus.
To summarize: all of the longing for God’s justice, for His mercy, for His redeeming love, for His Presence had finally arrived! This was truly a moment to rejoice.
But what now? The early Christians did not look back at Christmas and long for Jesus’ birth, did they? No, rather they looked forward to His return. The joy of Christmas, which is intricately bound up in the agony of longing, is founded on the idea that while God’s Kingdom is being inaugurated here and now, it will not be complete until Jesus returns. As Christians, we don’t celebrate Christmas because we like “baby Jesus” the best. We rejoice during Advent Season because Jesus came once, gave redemption to His people through His life, death, and resurrection, and He will return again to finally set everything to rights. We can be part of His glorious work now, but we still groan for justice and the redemption of all creation.
As the first week of Advent comes to a close, we open our hearts to the agony of a painfully incomplete world, and begin to move into the hope of Jesus’ second coming. Christmas is a time of looking forward to the promises of God, and worshipping Him in return.
The best way to prepare our hearts for this is prayer. I’ll end here with word from John Chrysostom, who says it much better than I could:
Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God, and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love, and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it.
Prayer is the light of the spirit, true knowledge of God, mediating between God and man. The spirit, raised up to heaven by prayer, clings to God with the utmost tenderness; like a child crying tearfully for its mother, it craves the milk that God provides. It seeks the satisfaction of its own desires, and receives gifts outweighing the whole world of nature. (excerpt from “The Prayer of Longing”)
May we learn to pray in this way, and thus long for our God with all of our heart, mind, body, and soul.