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Reflection: ‘Longing’ What is it that you are longing for?
Our first hymn ‘Christ be our light’ was full of longing. Longing for peace, hope, food, water, shelter, warmth and belonging, but what does it mean to long for something? It isn’t a term that is used frequently today. Usually we say we ‘want’ something or possibly ‘need’ it, if you are under 10 you may ‘really, really, really need it’. Both the words ‘want’ and ‘need’ convey possession and suggest something that can be obtained, something we want to own either because we desire it or we feel it is essential that we have it and therefore it should be provided.
But to ‘long’ for something is different. One dictionary definition I found was that to long for something meant to ‘desire or yearn for something difficult or impossible to obtain’. A lifetime of waiting for something that may never happen.
It is a word which captures that long, slow, persistent ache for something, something that is so important, so vital that we can’t escape wishing for it. The things beyond the basics, things which as much as we like to feel we are in control of providing or obtaining, when taken away, become a harsh reminder of just how fragile and dependent on God we are. Things worth waiting for.
In our first reading Isaiah finds himself and his people longing for God’s presence, guilty of turning away from God, they have found themselves in in the middle of threats, divisions, land battles and power struggles. Denied the strongest of human needs of belonging, security, safety and God’s favour, Isaiah calls out;
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins. Isaiah 64. 6-7
Isaiah goes on, pleading with God to come to those who feel bereft, abandoned, reviled and rejected, longing for God’s saving power. Waiting for something undeserved, something that cannot be purchased, borrowed or taken. Waiting for an undefined amount of time. Waiting. This is where advent starts.
This year has been a little like that for many of us. The strongest of our human needs having been taken away. Things that we have taken for granted. Physical contact with loved ones, freedom to go where we please, freedom to attend church and the ability to earn a living. We have been reminded of our fragility, our dependence, of what it means to long for something. What it means to wait.
And yet we are not without hope.
In the bible reading, Isaiah looks to the past.
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. Isaiah 64:3
He reminds the people of a time when God felt more present, a time where God intervened for them. Despite the bleak situation they found themselves in, they still had faith that God would deliver them.
In the happenings of the past they find strength to watch and wait for the future.
We are called to do the same. To look back at what God has already done for us. To the incarnate Christ, who walked with us, shared our pain and suffering, gave us hope and salvation and then to look forward to what has been promised is still yet to come. To draw strength from God’s unwavering, grace, mercy and love. To continue to watch and wait.
As a Christian I have a different interpretation of the word ‘longing’. The strongest of human needs are not difficult or impossible to fulfil, not for God. We may not be able to bring them about through our own strength and determination, but God has already promised them to us. He has proven His love for us, all we are asked to do is watch and wait. To long for them is not a futile, unfulfilled state of being, it is a patient waiting, a waiting filled with hope, expectation and excitement for a time so amazing we can scarce imagine it. A time worth waiting for.
It is no coincidence that so many people, Christians and non Christians alike, have already decorated their Christmas tree this year. It is an expression of longing. They are seeking that vital thing that will answer the slow, persistent, ache they feel. They are waiting.