Advent 1: Season of Desire
Lectionary Readings for December 2, 2012: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; I Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
Advent Calendar (Cycle C) and guidance for using the lectionary
Apparently American consumerism has reached a new low. As one news article described it, “The gravy was still warm. The Dallas Cowboys were still in uniform. Thanks were still being given across the country as the pilgrimages to the stores began. Lured by earlier-than-ever Black Friday sales, people left Grandma and Grandpa in search of Samsung and Toshiba. They did not go blindly. In dozens of interviews, people acknowledged how spending has become inseparable from the holidays.” 
For our international friends who may not be familiar with this esteemed American tradition, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving in which people try to get a head start on their holiday shopping. Retailers facilitate the process by offering the promise of the season’s lowest prices, opening their doors at the crack of dawn with door-buster sales and the like. This year, in an attempt to get a jump on things, many retailers opened their doors at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving night and shoppers, obligingly, came out in droves.
While admitting that it felt wrong to be out spending money on Thanksgiving night instead of lingering with family, shoppers were out anyway, carts full of deeply discounted iPads, Smartphones, and flat-screen televisions. Somehow they felt powerless against the holiday season’s “perfect storm of emotion and tradition” as though they had no choice but to shop. As one shopper acknowledged uncomfortably, “You have to have these things to enjoy your children and your family…It shouldn’t be that way but in a sense there’s no way around it. Everything ends up with a dollar amount. Even your happiness.” 
Lord, have mercy.
‘Tis the Season
And so the holidays begin…the season when superficial wants get confused with the deeper longings of the human heart. When giving the latest techno-toy gets confused with giving love. When magical thinking prevails, suggesting that spending money on others or ourselves can somehow make up for whatever else is lacking. ‘Tis the season when the kingdom of consumerism seems to reign, even as the kingdom of God draws near.
In the midst of our distress at seeing consumers lured prematurely from practicing gratitude to the frenzied scramble for the perfect gift at the lowest possible price, the themes of Advent are more needed than ever. In fact, the Scriptures for the first week of Advent call us—in the midst of so much distraction—to pay attention to the deeper desires of the heart.
Jeremiah expresses the longing of a whole nation to see God’s promise of righteousness, justice and peace fulfilled. The Psalmist speaks for all spiritual seekers when he cries out “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you, I put my trust. Lead me in your truth and teach me…For you I wait all day long.” Paul expresses a tender longing to see his loved ones face to face so that they might be mutually strengthened and encouraged by one another’s physical presence. And the Gospel reminds us that even in the midst of world events and private concerns that cause great worry, we need to stay awake to our deeper longing for the kingdom of God—that state of existence in which God’s will is done on earth and in our lives as is in heaven.
Listening to our Longings
When Jesus was here on earth he routinely asked people questions like “What do you want? What are you seeking? What do you want me to do for you?” Such pointed inquiries brought focus to his interactions with those who were spiritually hungry because they evoked deeply honest reflection and decisive action within the person to whom the question was addressed.
In John 1, Jesus’ question to the disciples about what they were seeking opened up the opportunity to follow Jesus to the place where he was staying and eventually becoming his followers. When Bartimaeus got in touch with his desire to see again and said it out loud to Jesus, it opened him to Jesus’ healing power and set him on a new path. (Mark 10:51) When the invalid at the Pool of Bethsaida stopped making excuses and acted upon his desire to be healed, he was able to make choices that were congruent with what he said he really wanted. (John 5:1-9) 
Why did Jesus ask such pointed and personal questions? Perhaps because he knew that such questions open up a world of possibility—the possibility of actually making choices that are congruent with what we say we really want. He seemed to understand that being in touch with our true desire can be catalytic for one’s spiritual life because it is the most powerful motivator for a life lived consistently with intentionality and focus.
Clarity about our desires can determine whether we linger with family or go shopping on Thanksgiving night. It can influence what we spend our time, our money and our energies on this season. It can shape what consumes our thoughts, our imaginations, and our attentions in the coming weeks. It might even determine whether we lift our souls to God this season and wait for him to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts or whether we keep worshipping at the temples of consumerism.
So what about you? When was the last time you felt it—real longing, that is? When was the last time you even attempted to discern the difference between superficial human wanting and the deeper desires of your own soul? If Jesus were to ask you at the beginning of this Advent season, what do you want—really—would you even know what to say?
Today marks the beginning of Advent and the new Church year. Let’s begin it together by getting clear on what we really desire and then allowing our truest desires to shape each and every decision we make. Rather than being afraid of our desires or distracting ourselves from the truest ones, let’s remember that “the more authentic our desires, the more they touch upon our identities and also the reality of God at the heart of our being. Our most authentic desires spring ultimately from the deep inner wells where the longing for God runs freely.”
These are the true desires of the heart that God longs to meet as we wait for him.
the wondrous gift is given.
I would be silent now,
that I may receive
the gift I need,
so I may become
the gift others need.
Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace
Click to view the schedule of lectionary readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for the Advent season
 “Explaining Black Friday’s Powerful Pull,” Daily Herald, Nov. 25, 2012 , Section 1, page 12.
 For more on the subject of desire and spiritual life, see chapter one of Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, InterVarsity Press, 2006.
 Phillip Sheldrake, S.J., Befriending Our Desires (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1994), p. 22.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life, including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
How do you discern the difference between superficial human wanting and the deeper desires of your soul?
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I, too, appreciate this article. I get confused, at times, between the doctrines of original sin and the image Dei especially when it comes to listening to the heart.
“What do you want? What are you seeking? What do you want me to do for you?” — I have heard those questions that Jesus ask the Blind Man, that Jesus asks us. But until tonight, I didn’t feel like my honest answer was spiritual enough. So I didn’t ask. In fact, I just told my prayer group last night that I was going to enter in a prayer time of praise only this Advent. But as I read your entry, God lifted the fog – He told me as He has so many times before to ask, that He truly wants me to praise Him much more than I do, but He still wants me to ask. So I did and the lies about how I should pray and that my desire was not worthy enough fell away. God graciously showed me how my longing is in fact a desire too of my soul and is eager to have it nourish my mind, body and spirit. Praise God.
A real example of how Advent can be a season of transformation!
I am sitting here with tears running down my face reading all of your thoughtful, honest comments about longing, desire, disappointment in our culture and ourselves inasmuch as we are a part of it. Thank you for taking these reflections so deep into your hearts and ruminating on them there. May we somehow find the grace and the discipline to live into our hearts’ deepest desires this season. The Lord bless you all, dear ones.
The idea that I may not even know what I want or what to ask for scares me. Oh come to my heart Lord Jesus. Thank you for this place to be honest and quiet.
Wow! What an insightful message and a powerful reminder of our need to clarify our desires, needs, longings, and priorities toward Kingdom purposes. I realize the value of asking myself questions and have others ask me questions to discern what I desire and need. I want what I do to be congruent with what I truly long for and need. Thanks for your insights and for giving me the motivation to position myself to have times of deep honest reflection during this season and every season.
Thank you for the call to reality and truth. It is so good to reflect on the advent season in a meaningful way. Your comments from Jeremiah were significant as I have been reading in Jeremiah for some time and see more than I ever did how it reflects our times. It has created a longing for the deepness of our God for me personally as well as for our culture.
The Thanksgiving holiday is supposedly about gratitude. And I believe that gratitude is meant for for us to learn to be content with what we have. But we see the hypocrisy in our American culture when so many Americans are not grateful or content, but are really coveting after more material possessions. We are not truly content, but coveting after more and more. More possession, more activities, more distractions that pull us away from God.
But I pray that we will pause and reflect on what we truly need and desire.
Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you, Lord.
Ruth ~ your shared devotion has provided an eloquence to what I have wanted to say since last year when this behavior started (Thursday evening shopping.) I have experienced people napping to prepare to shop (rather than experiencing the joy of loved ones.) I have experienced my own heart of bitterness as a result of the pull of the “savings.” I have read facebook posts from friends talking about how awful the employees are (the ones who are there WITHOUT a choice due to those who think it is so important to save a few bucks. the employees…the ones taken for granted in this whole scheme of things. AND yes, I have responded with such a post as what I just wrote on her that unlike those who are out doing the shopping,the employees are the ones forced to be present IF they want to stay employed …)
I appreciate your clarity of communication in this American dysfunction! I am sad to be a part of it … as I (my husband and children) will undoubetdly receieve gifts from some who had to get out and stand in line to wait for whatever gifts we just cannot seem to live without …. ?)
I am in a ministry family and so wish we could all be so passionate about the Christ who is the gift … rather than the savings that is the “percieved” blessing…
thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts here! I feel like a “leper” of sorts when I try to share my disappointment ….
I am glad you mentioned retail employees–those who are the true victims here. We all have a choice about whether to shop or not but most of them do not. This was a part of the grief I felt on Thanksgiving–grief for those who did not feel they really had a choice. Jobs are so hard to come by these days and I’m sure many felt caught. Lord have mercy.
Thank you Ruth, so well put. Only faith can contain our deepest longings; faith in the God who holds all of our deepest desires in his faithful hands. Without such faith, we will vacillate between denying our longings and impulsively indulging them.
To desire is to embrace the reality that “while we are in this earthly tent we groan, longing to be clothed in our heavenly dwelling”, only by remembering that it is also written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”. He is with us now and we will be with him forever….Advent. Emmanuel.
I was struck by your statement, “…the possibility of actually making choices that are congruent with what we say we really want.” How often do I, do we, desire the life that is truly life, and yet make choices to embrace a life that leads to death. ‘Choices’ are so powerful and yet can be so elusive when we are floating along in the cultural stream of inactivity, of non-choice, of soulish lethargy. May this season of Advent be a time of congruence in our lives so that Christ’s life may be birthed in us in greater ways!
Yes, to make this a time of congruence is a great way to try and live this season.
Recently, my husband and I have been house hunting. As we discuss the various floor plans and house locations, we end up straying to the topic of what our life would be like in that house. We imagine what would change about our lifestyles. As we dive deep into those topics, I find that my true longings are consistent no matter what house we move into. It has nothing to do with money or convenience. While those would be nice, the true longing of my heart is for a closer knit relationship with God and family.
This is a wonderful example of how precious and powerful longing is–even when it comes to buying a house! If we pay attention, it can truly shape our decisions.
The paragraph beginning “Clarity about our desires…” is the invisible longing that we ignore to go to, or we squash and refuse to think about, or we blatantly give into the superficial because it is part of the “herd instinct” of our culture. Thank you for reminding us of some very important lessons. My own school of growth is an on-going process and you are in the same school as I am. I feel like we are classmates together.
Yes, indeed we are!
Such a great post, and important question, Ruth. Thank you! It seems more than ever at Christmas, the noise and busyness mitigate against the silence and solitude necessary to sit with and discern our soul longings. The discipline of margin and silence are crucial to soul health in this season (and especially challenging for extroverts like me!).
To discern the deeper desires of my soul, I HAVE to step back, step away from all the superficial temptations. Daily sitting in my favorite chair, with morning prayers & God’s Word, brings His perspective. It is then within His perspective, that my true desires are known. “Apart from Him I can do nothing.”
thanks for the good reminders in this article. Getting in touch with the deep desires He has given us is a great way to begin Advent!
Funny meeting you here. Wink.
This is a breath of fresh air, no?
Thankful for her writings…
Too many of the emails I recieve from Christian companys and organizations are caught up in the consumerism of the season as much as the secular. Thanks for this bit of peace and rest… a compass needle to direct my journey through the coming Holiday Season. I stayed home with family Thanksgiving night and I’m not too worried about when or if I will do my Christmas shopping… Praying that I will be the gift God desires me to be.
To be, in our very persons, the gift God wants us to be and that others really need…that is a vision, isn’t it?
That is a beautiful vision for life, indeed! And the beautiful thing is that each of us has the capacity to become that gift (with God’s empowering), no matter what our physical or financial abilities may be! Thank you Ruth and Paul.
Like others I step back during this season and consciously remember the reason for this season. This year the readings have helped tremendously. Actually, they have opened new opportunities for faith, growth, and availability to God as a gift of love He’s created.