christmas

The Inconsolable Longing of Christmas

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I love Christmas.

Everything Christmas. I enjoy driving around town to look at all of the Christmas lights. I love the music — the carols, the traditional, classical and modern tunes. I love the cold winter weather, crackling fires and bundling up in scarves, mittens and blankets. I love the Christmas cookies, fudge and wintry comfort foods — oh, how I love the food! I absolutely adore being with my people on Christmas — seeing their smiles and joy, hearing their laughter, making memories. All of it.

Of all the things I love about the season, though, Christmas Eve captures my soul the most. There is a tenderness about Christmas Eve. It’s a tenderness that creates a soul-yearning that I first sensed many Christmas Eves ago, even before I realized who God was and how desperately I needed Him.

A Silent, Snowy Night

When I was in middle and high school, I played French horn. I never really mastered it, but I loved the sound. It was haunting in a way — deep, mellow tones filled with a richness that other instruments 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 “Senior Disney Trip,” the truth was that I enjoyed playing.

One year, my middle school band director asked me to join him and a couple of other friends who played brass instruments at midnight on Christmas Eve at the Presbyterian church. We stood in the outside alcove of this beautiful, old stone building and softly play Christmas carols, as parishioners left the sanctuary after their 11:00 pm Christmas Eve service.

Iowa is bitterly frigid in the winter. After standing in the wind, playing a brass instrument, I was miserably cold. After the last parishioner left, the minister thanked us, and my friends turned to run to the warmth of their cars. However, I found myself lingering there in the cold. I wasn’t ready to scrape my windows and drive home.

It was so still in that parking lot as I walked to my car. Snow was falling lightly — big, fat, fluffy flakes. A few people still milled around, visiting quietly as they walked to their cars, but for the most part, I was completely alone.

I didn’t want the moment to end. Something huge seemed to be occurring in that space, and a settledness descended upon my mind and soul, which was very rare in those hard, often doubt-filled teen years. It felt like a “quiet eagerness,” though I didn’t exactly know why. For a brief moment I felt a yearning so intense that I still remember it clearly today, many years later.

I’ve had intense longings both before and since that one Christmas Eve — such as being a child waiting for Christmas morning. 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 throughout our lives.

But there was a uniqueness to my longing under the falling snow that night. The anticipation was sweet and even comforting. I did not want that moment to end. And yet, at the same time, I wanted to grasp hold of what that moment was ushering in — though I did not know exactly what I was longing for.

What I long for is found only in the Christmas story — the hope of the Savior, come to be Emmanuel, God with us.

What We Long For

C.S. Lewis described this longing in his book The Weight of Glory. Lewis called it Sehnsucht, 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 sense of Sehnsucht was what I was experiencing on that cold, snowy Christmas Eve. And, I think it is what still falls upon my soul often during the Christmas season: A deep longing; an eager yet settled desire.

Today I understand that what I long for is found only in the Christmas story — the hope of the Savior, come to be Emmanuel, God with us. However, a mystery still 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 world’s Savior and our only hope. And his love for you and me is deeper than we can ever fathom.

Oh, how I long to be in His presence!

The Christmas hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” captures this longing so well. Each Christmas Eve, after the children have all gone to bed and the “busy-ness” has ceased, I sit in front of our Christmas tree, wrapped in my favorite blanket, and I listen deeply to the lyrics.

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.

~Charles Wesley; pub. 1745

This hymn is a prayer expressing that deep longing for Jesus’ birth, but also for His return. It also prompts us to pray out of that very same longing we each hold in our soul.

This Christmas season, find a quiet moment and read the lyrics carefully. Ponder and treasure them in your heart, and grasp that sense of anticipatory, yet peaceful longing.

And, in that longing, find your joy — and rest — in Him.

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Shelly Durkee

Shelly Durkee is a Christ-follower who is keenly aware of God’s mercy and grace. She is the wife of Ken and is mom to four incredible young adults. She delights in every moment spent with her family. Shelly has been published in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal and in the UK Journal "CCPAS Caring." Reading is her favorite pastime, and writing is what helps to keep her pushing forward toward God. Shelly writes about her unique story of grace at shellyduffer.com.

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