We got our tree yesterday. A poky, quirky, fat-on-one-side tree from the middle of the woods. It was snowing when we drove down the quiet road in search for it. Christmas music played on my iPhone. And now our house has that pine scent I’ve been waiting for since the day I vacuumed up the needles from last year’s tree. The scene was perfect. All that comfort and joy we sang about in church was tantalizingly near. So close it felt like I could reach out and grab hold of it. But my hands came up empty. Like grasping for fistfuls of air. No matter how idyllic the moment it remains nothing more than a fleeting glimpse of an unmet desire.
We get so close sometimes, thinking we can manufacture our time into something meaningful, our work into something satisfying, our relationships into something fulfilling. If we just try hard enough, if we just do the right things and say the right words and go through the right motions, and if we can just somehow manage to make everyone else around us cooperate with the plan, then we will at last find our needs met. Harder and harder we try, deeper and deeper our needs go and we watch everything, everyone, even our own selves, come up short. Occasionally we get close. Things seem perfect. And we clutch at those moments, clinging to the feelings they offer – feelings of completeness, of wholeness. But even as we hold that perfection tight to our chest we wonder why we still feel empty. Like a cavernous hole is in our chest that sinks lower under the weight of all the ways we try to fill it.
We lit the first candle of Advent yesterday. The hope candle. It’s single flame flickers alone and we try to bring our hearts to hope.
The boxes of decorations are pulled out, lights strung on trees, carols piped out of stereos and pianos at church. We’re all ready to hope for something, for the coming of Christmas, right? So we manufacture our feelings of good cheer and holiday merriment by hanging garland and drinking peppermint mochas and claiming that we’re walking in hope these days before Christmas. But do we even know what we’re hoping for? Do we even have a space in our hearts to hope?
Hope that is seen is no hope at all, Paul writes in Romans. Who hopes for what he already has?
We do. We with our masks over our faces, our walls guarding our hearts, pretending like we are perfect, like we have it all together, like the brokenness that encompasses the world has left us untouched. And all the while, this unwillingness to admit our need leaves us with an inability to have hope. Because who hopes for what he already has?
I feel a stirring among Christ followers at this time of year. I sense that the restless desire within my heart also tugs at yours. We want this season to be rich, to be deep, to be meaningful. We want a real encounter with the Messiah we are celebrating. But as long as we strive to contrive a perfect holiday experience, as long as we attempt to manipulate the birthing of magic during this season, as long as we pretend like our trees and traditions and gatherings and ambiance are meeting our needs, we will not be able to meet Christ. If we think we can make this Christmas special by our own devices we will leave no space to hope.
Our hearts will only learn to hope when they learn that they are in need.
We must experience and admit our deep want in order to experience and encounter our deeply loving God.
The whole entirety of the created world groans as if in childbirth. It waits in eager expectation. It has been subjected to frustration – to incompleteness, to unfulfilling experiences, to hurt and sorrow, to devastation and decay. It was intended to feel this way, so that it might also feel hope.
No longer do we need to hide from the empty ache. No longer do we need to cover it with more tinsel and wrapping paper, or push it down with cookies and cocoa. It is not meant to be covered. It is meant to be felt. It is time for our hearts need to know the extent of our need so that they might experience the fullness of our hope.