As children, we spent Thanksgiving afternoon pouring over Grandma’s Sears Wishbook. Maybe you remember it: that fat, full-color glossy, more of an encyclopedia of the latest toy offerings than a mere catalog. The Wishbook was so big that you had to purchase it. My grandmother did, and we kids benefited from her surprising lapse in frugality.
Or at least, we thought we benefited. We spent those sunlit afternoons flipping the pages, viscous longing puddling in our chests until our hearts ached. Because you can’t have it all, can’t get it all, can’t scrounge up enough allowance money to buy it all. The reality is that our childhood longing was the kitten-toothed cub of the “desire of the eyes” that the apostle John warned about (1 John 2:16). We longed for those toys, longed for practically something on every page–all except for the vast, pink desert of dolls and ponies, which we flipped past impatiently on the way to the planes, trains, and cork guns.
What do you long for? We’ve all got our pages marked in the catalog: true love, children, house, car, retirement account, a vacation (that sounds good about now), a cabin, a boat (or canoe or kayak), a horse. Life’s Wishbook spreads flat before us. We want the goods (and sometimes: the not-so-goods) that the world has to offer, and our hearts are restless until we obtain or achieve them. In some ways, longing is just life. But in other ways, longing can make us heart-sick, because it’s deferred or slips through our fingers (Proverbs 13:12). And even fulfilled longings can turn to ash in our mouths.
The reason for this is that we’re seeking something deeper. Longing’s magnetic glow comes not from itself, but ultimately from God. What draws us in, what we’re really hoping to find when we flip to the next page of the catalog, is our Creator. At the root of all human longing is a longing for God.
Of course, we mostly don’t believe this. We think, like the young Thomas Merton, that all we need to be happy is to “grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it” (The Seven Storey Mountain, p.4). But no. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). We desire more. We long for our wanderings to carry us beyond the horizon.
Which is to say that we long for the God who has gifted us this whole, preter-lavish world, the One who speaks to us through our longings. It is only in longing for things as they originate in and find their meaning in the Creator that we can find what we’re truly looking for. St. Augustine writes, “the good make use of this world in order to enjoy God, whereas the evil want to make use of God in order to enjoy the world” (City of God, p.604). Without this realization, stuff and relationships come to rule us. Success beckons from its scrolled pedestal. All these things become greater in our eyes. And we become so very much less.
This matters now because while pop-Christmas is about desiring and buying and giving stuff (Ho! Ho! Ho!), the church’s ancient Feast of the Nativity calls us to something more: the reconfiguration of our longings to God. And that will mean journeying with Joseph and Mary and the shepherds and the magi and gazing again with pure longing into the lamp of that swaddled face in the manger.