Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Matthew Woodley is the Senior Pastor at Three Village Church, New York City. He is best known for his articles in Leadership Journal, Discipleship Journal and Rev! Magazine. His popular book on spirituality, Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon, (SaltRiver) looks at radical discipleship from the time of the Desert Fathers to our own day. This moving passage comes from Devotions for Advent Holy Bible: Mosaic, published by Credo Communications.

A few years ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, I played John Lennon's song "Imagine" right before my sermon. It wasn't a universal hit. The lyrics may be controversial; he imagines a live-for-today existence with no heaven and no hell, but he longs for a better place where "the world will be as one."

In my defense, I clearly stated that, contra Lennon's lyrics, I believe in heaven, hell, the blood of Jesus, and things worth dying for. But Lennon was right about one thing: This world is broken, and we should yearn for its healing. Our hearts should ache for a better world.

Sadly, our culture often fosters a complacent, blasé, smug approach to Christianity. In the words of C. S. Lewis, "We are far too easily pleased." We're happy to numb and freeze our restless ache for a better world.

Advent is the season of the church year that ignites that longing in our hearts. Before we rush into "Happy Holidays," we pause and let longing rise up within us. Throughout Advent we catch glimpses of a better world.

And as we catch glimpses of this Messiah-healed world, we long for its coming now. All of the best Advent hymns capture this spirit of groaning and longing for Messiah's better world. When we sing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," with its dark, unresolved melody, it cracks our hearts open with longing's wound. And yet, we know Messiah has come, even as we wait for him to come again. Advent is a deliciously painful mix of joy and anguish.

This Advent-like longing is at the heart of Christian spirituality. Augustine's Latin phrase desiderium sinus cordis-"yearning makes the heart grow deep"-became a central theme in his pilgrimage on earth. Augustine cried out, "Give me one who yearns; . . . give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean."

C. S. Lewis claimed that in this life the Advent-like stab of longing serves as a spiritual homing device, placed deep in our heart by God to lead us back to him. Thus, as Psyche realizes in Till We Have Faces, "It almost hurt me . . . like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home. . . . The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from. . . . The longing for home."

Advent trains us to ache again. Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is the time to acknowledge, feel, and even embrace the joyful anguish of longing for Messiah's birth and the world's rebirth. So we sing our aching songs while we light candles and festoon the church with greenery. That is Advent longing, and we couldn't imagine it any other way.


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