The season of Advent brings with it pleasing rituals of happy anticipation. Open a door on the Advent calendar and find a piece of chocolate. Light a candle in the Advent wreath and know you are getting closer to Christmas. Make your lists and check them twice as you look forward to giving, receiving, and feasting.
The waiting that comes with Advent is fun because it is finite. We know what’s coming at the end of our wait will be good, and we know exactly how many days we have left to wait for it.
But much of the waiting that occupies our lives is open-ended. We wait for love and marriage without knowing if it will come. We wait for children without knowing whether we will conceive. We wait for justice. We wait for healing.
The hardest thing about waiting is not knowing when it’s going to end, if it is going to end. Waiting brings questions without easy answers. If your life’s plans aren’t coming to fruition, should you change course or hold out for your heart’s desire? Are your unfulfilled yearnings indicators of sinful discontentment, or blessings God simply hasn’t yet fulfilled?
Longing at Christmas
This season of anticipation is one in which our longings come sharply into focus. Maybe you’re single and wonder each year whether perhaps next year will be the one you finally have someone to take as your date to the office party. Maybe you have family members who are estranged, and every year you hope that the next will bring them home.
I spent last Christmas wondering if this would be the year God would give my husband and me a baby. He didn’t, but I can’t help hoping that by this time next year, we will be a family of three.
All the feel-good Christmas movies enhance the hope of a happy reconciliation in time for Christmas. The lonely are set in families, and the long-lost make it home. In the real world, however, Christmas comes and goes without fulfilling the longings of our hearts.
Longing for More
Advent is about more than waiting for Christmas. The word means “coming.” During Advent, we not only remember that Jesus came to earth as a man; we also prepare our hearts for his second coming. When we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” we are not role-playing what the ancient Israelites must have prayed before the coming of the Messiah. No, we are praying that Emmanuel would return and make right all that is wrong with the world. When we sing, “Let every heart prepare him room,” we are not retroactively chastising the innkeepers of Bethlehem; we are preaching to all souls within earshot to be ready to meet their Judge and Maker unafraid.
The timing for this emphasis on Christ’s return couldn’t be better, in my opinion. Just when we would like to be happiest, and are therefore, ironically, the saddest, we remember that not only has Christ come, he has also promised to come again. This life is not our only shot at happiness. It is a brief prelude to the life to come where we will find pleasures evermore. In the presence of Jesus, we will not regret anything we lacked in this life.
This life is not our only shot at happiness. It is a brief prelude. . . . In the presence of Jesus, we will not regret anything we lacked in this life.
If your heart is heavier than you’d like this Advent season, take heart that the joys of Christmas aren’t ultimately what you wait for. The best Christmas—one in which every family member sits around the table, speaks sweetly to everyone else, and prefers giving to receiving—is a pale shadow of the rejoicing yet to come. Let your heartache point you beyond Christmas to the better celebration that awaits. Join with the voices of Christians around the world, who together pray, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at Crossway’s blog.