Truly, I love Christmas.
I enjoy driving around town, looking at all of the Christmas lights. I love the music–the carols, the traditional tunes, the classical and the pop-culture-ish. I love the cold winter weather, and all that comes with that–bundling up in scarves and mittens and blankets. I love the food—oh, how I love the food! The Christmas cookies and fudge and wintry comfort foods. And, of course, I absolutely adore being with my crew on Christmas–seeing their smiles and joy, hearing their laughter–making memories.
But–of all the things I love, it is Christmas Eve that captures my soul the most.
There is something that is so tender about Christmas Eve. It’s a tenderness that creates a yearning that I sensed many Christmas Eves ago, even before I came to realize who God is.
When I was in middle and high school, I played French horn (which is comical to me to think about, today). Though I never really mastered it, I loved the sound. It was haunting in a way–deep, mellow tones filled with a richness that other instruments–in my opinion–seemed to lack. And while my friends and I often joked that the only reason we were in band was so we could go on the infamous “Trip to Disney” our senior year, the truth was that I enjoyed playing.
A couple of years in a row, my middle school band director asked me to join him and a couple of other friends of mine who played brass instruments (trombone and trumpet) at midnight on Christmas Eve, at either the Lutheran or Presbyterian church–I don’t quite recall which it was. But I do remember that it was a beautiful, old stone building. Our job was to stand outside in the alcove and play Christmas carols softly, as parishioners left sanctuary after their 11:00 pm Christmas Eve Service.
Iowa is cold in the winter. Bitter cold. And standing there in the wind, playing a brass instrument, was very, very cold. And the first year I played, as soon as the last parishioner left and the minister thanked us, I practically ran to the car to get warm.
But the second year I played was different. It was still cold, but there was just something about the night, that caused me to linger, well after my teacher and fellow musicians had left.
It was so, so still in that parking lot as I walked to my car. Snow was falling lightly–big, fat, fluffy flakes. There were a few people still milling around, visiting quietly as they walked to their cars–but for the most part, I was completely along.
I didn’t want the moment to end. There seemed to be something huge occurring in that space–and a settledness descended upon my mind and soul, which was very rare in those hard years. It felt like a “quiet eagerness”–though I didn’t know exactly why. For a brief three or four minutes, I felt a yearning so intense that I still remember that moment clearly today, many years later.
Oh, I’ve had intense longings both before and since that one Christmas Eve–such as being a child waiting for Christmas morning and the gifts Santa would be, or the longing that happens in that ninth month of pregnancy, waiting for your child to be born. Or the longing for a loved one serving our country to return from a long deployment. We all experience deep longings at different times through our lives.
But there was a uniqueness that night and to my longing under the falling snow. And, the anticipation was sweet. Comforting, even.
I did not want that moment to end. And yet, at the same time, I wanted to grasp a hold of what that moment was ushering in–though I did not know exactly what it was, that I was longing for.
C.S. Lewis is the only author that I’ve found, who has been able to write words to describe this longing. You can find it throughout much of his writings; but particularly in his book The Weight of Glory. Lewis described it as Sehnsucht.
Lewis defined Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” It is a forward-looking longing–a desire for something that is to come, yet we do not fully know what that something is.
And now–many years later, I believe that this–sehnsucht–was what I was experiencing on that cold, snowy Christmas Eve, in Iowa. And, I think it is what has fallen upon me again, here at Christmas time in 2016. A deep longing; an eager yet settled desire.
Today I understand much greater that what I am longing for, is found only in the Christmas story–the hope of the Savior–come to be Emmanuel, God with Us.
However, there is still a mystery that surrounds that longing, which makes it fit Lewis’ definition of “sehnsucht”. There is tremendous mystery in the truth that the baby who was born so many years ago in a stable in Bethlehem became the Savior of the world, and our only hope….and that His love for me, and you, is deeper than we can ever fathom.
Oh, how I long to sense His presence.
And how I long for the day, in which I will see Him face-to-face.
This past week, as the days marched steadily toward this Christmas day, that sense of sehnsucht seemed to grow deeper in me. And last night, on Christmas Eve, I experienced that same longing once again, as I eagerly looked toward this morning, knowing that we would be celebrating Jesus’ birth by worshiping with our church family, since Christmas fell upon a Sunday this year.
This year, the song that has captured me above all other Christmas songs is “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus). And after all of my crew had drifted off to sleep, I listened to it one more time.
And as I sat there in front of the Christmas Tree, wrapped in my favorite blanket, I listened deeply to the lyrics. It’s a prayer expressing that deep longing for Jesus’ birth, but also for His return. And, as a prayer, it prompts us to pray as well, out of that very same longing we each hold in our soul–whether we know it or not.
I’ve placed the words to this beautiful song below; along with my favorite version. Read them carefully. Read them and grasp that sense of anticipatory yet peaceful longing.
And, in that longing, find your joy–and rest–in Him.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
By Thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.