“We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
In our past posts in this series, we examined Jewish expectations around the coming Messiah in order to better understand Advent. We also included an Advent poem by Rowan Williams, and a meditation on the meaning of Advent by our friend Brice Johnson.
Today, we will end our Advent series by seeing how God’s entrance into Creation as Jesus Christ fulfilled not only the messianic expectations of Israel, but also the deepest longings and needs of every human heart. In this way, we will understand how Advent allows us to use Israel’s Story to better understand Our Story.
Human beings confront a loneliness so strong that it is best described as alienation. We all experience a melancholic, sometimes searing estrangement from our work, our families, our social circles, and even ourselves. Often, this sense of alienation is the ground note that hums beneath the rest of our lives. We drown out that note by surrounding ourselves with the din of daily activities, noisy career achievements and personal triumphs, or the background chatter of the Internet and television. But when we allow for a moment of quiet, we hear the ground note’s continued hum. Its presence disturbs our rest and alerts us to deep spiritual longing within us.
The Germans have a word for this feeling of bound-up alienation and longing that cannot be summed up easily in English—Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is a word that describes something deeper than nostalgia. Nostalgia describes your sentimental attachment to the house you grew up in as a child. But Sehnsucht is the longing that recognizes that even if you reacquired the house you grew up in, you would still be unsatisfied, for what you long for is not actually the house, but your idealized memory of a home, a memory more perfect than the actual home you possessed. Your longing is for something you never really had.
It is Sehnsucht that explains our persistent alienation. We long for something that we can barely express, and which we can never satisfy.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed that all our alienations—all manifestations of Sehnsucht—derive from the fundamental alienation of the individual from Absolute Being, or God. God is not simply the Supreme Being in the Universe. Rather, God is Absolute, the ground of being, Being Itself, upon whom the Universe and the possibility of existence rests. To be alienated from the Creator God who revealed Himself to Israel as Yahweh (“I AM THAT I AM”) is not just to be “breaking God’s Law,” but to be fundamentally out of step with the nature of ultimate Reality. It is our alienation from God that is responsible for our Sehnsucht.
Accordingly, Kierkegaard held that it is only contact with the Divine that will truly satisfy our existential longing. The longing for something we never had points to our longing for God.
We attempt to quiet this longing with our marriages, our children, our careers, or our wealth. But the whole point of Sehnsucht is that the fulfillment of these lesser longings will inevitably disappoint us. The marriage may be good, the children may be well-behaved, the career may prove worthwhile, and we may be prosperous in retirement, but it, IT, the rich meat and marrow of life, the center of love, the brightness of light, the thing we were really after all along, somehow continues to escape us.
And that frustrates us. We are even more frustrated because we cannot even articulate the reason for our frustration. We reach up grasping wildly for whatever we can take from the world, but the indescribable thing itself we were really reaching for slips through our fingers.
Christianity tells us that our longing for God can never actually be consummated, at least not on our own terms. No amount of philosophic contemplation, spiritual mantras, or ascetic purification can elevate us to contact the Divine by our own merits. No, in order to actually touch the Divine and satisfy our deepest longing, the Divine would have to somehow reach down and touch us. Bizarrely—perhaps even stupidly, to outside observers—we Christians believe that this is exactly what happened. God so loved the world that Heaven came down to Earth, and the infinite united to the finite when Jesus Christ was born, so that through Jesus’ life and work God could finally touch humankind.
It is God’s action, not our own, that brings final satisfaction. In Christ, the thing itself we were longing for but could never grasp took on flesh as an offering for humankind.
Advent is a time when Christians put a name to our Sehnsucht. The ground note humming disconcertingly reveals our need for God. In His providential ordering of history, God entered Creation as a first-century Jew, so that we may use the language of Israel’s exile to help us understand our feeling of alienation from God’s presence, and to help us understand the meaning of Christ’s Coming. It is because of our alienation from God that we remain alienated to one another, and cannot treat one another justly, and forever pollute God’s holy purposes with our own petty, selfish ambitions. It is because of our alienation from God that every good and desirable fruit turns to ashes in our mouths.
By breaking into history in flesh and blood, God offers us a way out of this alienation, and into reconciliation. Reconciliation is not cheap or easy—it costs God, as we find at the Cross, and it costs us, as we find ourselves invited by the Spirit to share in the wounded life of Christ. But in this reconciliation, we find the fulfillment of every embarrassing, fantastical human longing: to escape time and death, to know love without parting, to communicate with non-human beings, and to see evil defeated forever.
Perhaps, some may say, these longings reveal the fundamental childishness and immaturity of Christianity. It is nothing more than a fairy-tale, a balm for suffering, a beautiful Story that is too good to be true. I have to admit that in darker moods, I entertain that possibility. But in Advent, we Christians face up to the hold these foolish longings have on our hearts, and declare triumphantly—maybe even defiantly—that they will be and have been met in Jesus Christ.
And so, we involve ourselves for a season deeply in the Story of Jesus’ First Coming to understand our complete reliance on the action of God to make us whole and to heal our spiritual aches. By doing so, like little children, we learn to eagerly await and anticipate His Coming Again, when He will consummate the deepest longing of our hearts.
Come, thou long expected Jesus
Born to set they people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
–Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, words by Charles Wesley