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On longing

21 December 2010

If you’ve been following my blog posts (specifically the wordy rants) over the past month or so, you’ll know that I’ve written on two Advent-y themes: waiting and hoping. Originally, I thought Advent was about waiting, but I quickly found that unsatisfying as a summary of Advent. Waiting implies a lack of activity, and that seems counter to what St. John the Baptizer was trying to say. Hope, I thought, was a better answer. But that is proving to be only slightly more satisfying that waiting. Hope is lovely, but is seeming too teleological for my taste–yes, it will get better, but what about now?

Instead, perhaps longing is better sentiment. Longing, like waiting, has an air of the anticipation of the season, but doesn’t have the connotations of patience and doing-nothing that I tend to find unconvincing. Longing is something our hearts do, a natural stretching forth for a promise yet unfulfilled. It doesn’t sit back, though, and wait patiently. It tugs at the very fibers of our being. It is by its very nature impatient. It doesn’t wait for the world to be better; it compels you to go do something about it.

And unlike hope, longing does not have some of the nastiness that I find with optimism, that it claims that everything is fine, even though it expressly is not. Hope is still a little too optimistic for my taste. It can be dashed to pieces rather quickly. Sometimes I find myself surrounded by doubt, yet still wanting and longing to find something I can believe in again. This is not hope–I am still skeptical if there is anything worth believing in. But something in the depths of my being wants there to be.

For those who–for better or for worse–identify in some way with the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, longing (rather than waiting or hoping, I think) is characteristic of who we are. And perhaps this is even more so for the case of those of us who find ourselves in some way on the outskirts of the institutional Church, those who maybe only reluctantly identify as “Christian”. This same feeling undergirds a significant piece of American religious identity right now: those who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious”, who seem to say that they long for some sort of Truth, but do not hope to find it within an organized faith tradition.

For all of us during this season of Advent, we merge our longing with the Israelites for their Promised One, but who had surely begun to doubt that this Messiah would ever come. We merge our longing with the earliest Christians (especially those in Thessalonica to whom St. Paul wrote) for their Promised One to return, but who realized that his “soon, and very soon” return might be on a cosmic scale rather than a human one.  For both of these peoples, hope seemed pointless and waiting was a farce. Even St. John the Baptizer seems with all of us, as he sends to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Advent seems to me no longer a time of waiting, preparing, and hoping, but more of a time of sitting with the quiet desperation, the pit in our stomachs, the angst (used in the correct existentialist meaning), the longing of our hearts for something better–though we may no longer truly believe that that something better will come. Advent is less something that we do, but instead a calling out of a fundamental truth about human existence: our lives are lives of longing.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 21 December 2010 12:00

    Very nice meditation. So often we wrestle with holy longing and mundane reality.

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