Lenten Longings

A sacrament is a human or physical means to the experience of divine grace. The most common sacrament celebrated in the Christian community is that of bread and wine, a physical means by which we experience the grace made possible through the sacrificial gift of Christ’s body and blood. But there are many things in concrete human experience that can be sacramental for us—that help us experience the truth and presence of God in profound ways—things like thorns, or the ache of human longing.

As fall turns to winter, short days and cold weather descend and put our gardens to sleep. The earth is dark and lifeless—cold. Our bodies slow down and for many of us, the short, dark days bring on a deep weariness of spirit. In our heart throbs an deep longing, a desperate wish for light and life. It is in such hopeless times that our hearts quicken with thoughts of spring, when longer days lead to warmer weather, and to the awakening of the world—resurrection! Barren trees birth buds and blossoms, then leaves and a full dress of green.

We all know what this ache is like. It might come in simple forms, like a deep thirst for a drink or a deep hunger for food. But often it involves a longing for other people. Depending on our place in life, we might long for a parent who is distant or gone forever; for a spouse who is too-long away; for distant friends or for a love not yet discovered;  for a child who has walked away, never to return.

But our longings often reach beyond what we can see and touch. All of us from time to time feel a deep and nameless longing. It may be something we have not yet named. Long ago Saint Augustine said in prayer, “You have created us for Yourself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in You.”  We’re born with a God-shaped vacuum that awakens in us a nameless longing for eternity, an aching wish to draw close our Creator. And, perhaps, all our human longings are underscored when we lack a connection to the One who made us.

And the longing for our Creator is “felt” by more than just humans. In Scripture we are told that all creation is groaning, longing for a rescue from the painful consequences of sin and of living in a fallen world (Romans 8:18-23). We long for the return of our Maker, who has the means and desire to make things right again. This is the longing we feel in Advent season, as we await the coming of God in the person of the Christ-child—Emmanuel—“God with us.” It is also the longing of Lent and Good Friday, as we await the resurrection light of Easter morning. This is the longing we feel as we look for the return of the Christ—our Maker and Keeper and Healer—come, Lord, and come quickly!

But our own small longings are just an echo of a longing as deep and wide as the universe—the longing that God feels toward us as members of His alienated creation. Ever since the fateful day of separation in Eden, God has longed to be intimate with us. He didn’t create us so He could inflict punishment on us for our failures, or so He could abandon us and watch us flounder in darkness. He made us to be His friends. All the great people mentioned in Scripture had serious failings, but what set them apart was their profound friendship with God. (Look at Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and David, all known as friends of God.) God has a longing to be a friend to every one of us. And the Father sent His Son to overcome the alienation and heal the rift. In Christ we are no longer strangers, but citizens of God’s kingdom and members of His family (Ephesians 2:19). There need be no distance.

Jesus once told a story of a father and two sons, by which he illustrated the passionate longing of the divine Father to be close to His children—both those who choose to live selfish, excessive lives and those who actually think they can earn His favor by being good. See the passion of the Father as he welcomes His prodigal son home, despite his earlier offenses:

“A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began….” (Luke 15:11-24, NLT)

As you feel the ache of longing in your heart, whatever its source, let it become a divine sacrament to you—a means by which God calls you to yearn for Him and His return. Let it be a means that drives you to reflect and prepare for that and for any other future event, like the longing you may feel to plant your garden, when the warmth of spring is still a long way off.

And know that in this heartache, you have begun to tune your heart to the heartbeat of God, the one who loves you and longs for your love and your transformation. You have begun to know the ache in His heart for you.

Garden Tip: A longing for spring in the middle of winter can be a source of depression, but it can also be a call to action and awareness. Those who receive seed catalogs in the mail during the cold months often find hope stirring and take a sketch pad in hand to begin a garden plan and make a seed order. Take the time to dream of possibilities and let your longings grow to full maturity. Lay out the rows and beds for your plants. Make all the necessary plans and preparations.

And as you begin the long, dark days of Lent, don’t hide from the ache in your heart; embrace it. It reveals your awareness that things are not right, that things here are broken. Take the time to prepare your heart; don’t waste any time. Remember also that the longing in your heart reveals something to you about the heart of the Creator, who longs for us to come to him. Remember that the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas was an expression of God’s longing for you and for the restoration of all things. Look forward to His resurrection at Easter as a sign of its further fulfillment. Then let your heart groan as you await His return, when the present darkness will be overwhelmed by light, and there will be no distance between creation and Creator. Turn toward His longing embrace and make ready.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lowly exile here,

until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel—has come to thee, O Israel.”

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