Light in the Darkness
Here we are—mid-December: a season of celebration that in at least one uber-educated, moderately liberal, American college town (mine), people seem confused by the juxtaposition of culture and tradition; tradition and church.
Mid-December and there is more darkness than light, so we spend more time in fluorescent spaces sprinkled with glittering dollar signs, or staring at backlit screens searching out the perfect gift. We shop, hoping that our purchasing power is the very thing that will re-establish those bygone holiday traditions.
There is a longing in our hearts to set the tables, host gatherings, to give good gifts. There is a longing for light and hope and love and silly songs. There is a longing for friendship and family, for time to remember and time to look forward.
In the background of these days, there is the incessant hum of our regular routines. School and work do not stop so that we can bake more cookies or sit with friends. Sports are not put on hold so that we can spend a day shopping, singing Silver Bells, and wondering how we keep traditions when the word Christmas itself is being removed from the holidays, and the lights represent all that glitters, rather than a guiding star.
Our lives—in and out of this season—are built around longing; wanting and needing the next thing, the last thing, but very rarely the moment in front of us. We want to be a part of something bigger: to get the next promotion, to move into the bigger house, we need the newer car, the most up-to-date wardrobe, the most decorated house on our street.
All of this want and need is rooted in one core value. Humans are built for community, We want to belong. We want and need the next big things because we want our neighbors, friends, and enemies, all to notice how worthy we are of their friendship and to see how very much we fit in. We do these things, purchase these things, because we hope that we will belong to a community, to a place, to a family, a church, a workplace.
We long for days of peace, for love, for warmth, for food, and for celebration. We long to see those we have been missing. We long for a time when we can rest and we long to know what rest is.
We are constantly wanting -needing – longing. Are those words, those feelings, synonymous? I can’t tell if want is the same thing as need and that either is the same as long. Definition-wise, they’re similar, however, it is important to note that we do not be-want to something. nor be-need something.
We long for a time when we can rest and we long to know what rest is.
Longing is different than wanting and needing. Our wants and needs are imperfect longings. Our wants and needs tend to fall into the current of the momentary whirlpool of today’s zeitgeist; the feelings their fulfillment inspires mimic the contentment for which we yearn. Linguistically, this can be described in the way we can want and need and long for the same thing, however, we can only belong. We can connect what it means “to be” with “longing.”
So what are we longing for? Always there is this want and need, an ever-growing dearth of ways to want and need, and still we never belong.
Maybe we belong to a family, or a friendship; maybe we belong to a community, or a church, but ultimately, and unchangeably, we find our being in a Creator who made us in his image. We long for Jesus, and we belong to Him. The longing that is hidden, piled under all of the other needs and wants we feel—the true north of our compass which is constantly tugged but the lower magnetic pulls of every other thing.
Truth in Parody and Poem
There are spaces in between—liminal spaces—the already and the not yet that we feel in every moment of every day. Our impatient hearts and minds and bodies seek to fill these spaces and pass by discomfort. We don’t want to sit and wait.
We don’t want to feel the tug of what was and is and is to come. In the comic movie parody, Spaceballs (an epic in its own right), there is a scene in which the characters break the fourth (or fifth) wall and watch the scene as it is happening, through a screen on their “spaceship.” The antagonist of this epic, Dark Helmut impatiently asks “When does this happen in the movie?” and after a back and forth in which it is established that “then” has passed, “When?” “Now,” Dark Helmut asks “When will then be now?” and is famously answered “Soon.”
Mid-December, and here we are in the midst of Advent—waiting for Christmas. We dress up our houses, our kids, our Christmas cards and social media, and we want to belong to the traditions we’ve made in these seasons. What if we dig a little deeper and stop to refocus those wants and needs, to recognize Advent as the fast that it is, and what if we sink a little into the liminal discomfort of the darkness of a world of broken, waiting to be made new?
All of these traditions, they point to the waiting, the want of light, the hope of something more.
We are still in these spaces. We are a people longing to believe stories told for thousands of years–stories of a baby, born to the lowest, in the lowest, way—a baby come to be a savior and to provide a path to life and light, when all we might otherwise see is darkness. Sink in and look for a star, it’s brighter without the glitter. We wait, and long, and we ask when will then be now? We are distracted by the glittering signs and the screens, we are stressed out by the need to purchase and perform. When will then be now?
The poetry of Christina Rossetti is read out loud in our home every year during this Advent season. Her words describe the longing – waiting – watching – wondering who will see the coming savior, who will see the promises come true.
Year after year, we’ve read the stanzas around the table, and while this year we’ve been more lax in our reading (teenagers are more difficult to talk into poetry readings), these words haunt my mid-December, and remind me of the light for which we’re waiting.
From the first stanza of “Advent,” Rossetti’s words call out, “Watchman – what of the night” we cry/Heartsick with hope deferred,” and do you feel the longing in those words? Hope deferred, but not forsaken. That is what it means to belong—to draw out the wanting, to know that the fulfillment of our deepest longing is not in our purchasing power, but in a God who was and is and will be, a God who makes and fulfills promises, a God who is worth the wait.
Darkness surrounds us this season, the days grow shorter and shorter and our bodies long for the light. All of these traditions, they point to the waiting, the want of light, the hope of something more.
Enjoy the sparkle of the season and the beauty of giving good gifts. Take the time to wear a silly sweater and bake cookies late into the night so that you and your family and friends can enjoy. Here we are. Here is where the juxtaposed tradition, culture, church, blurs into beauty. Here, in mid-December, Christmas is coming, friends, but for now defer your hope and live a little into the darkness that is Advent.
When will then be now?
Brooks, Mel dir. 1987. Spaceballs. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Rossetti, Christina 2001. The Complete Poems. Penguin Classics