If our encounter with a Coronavirus and an exhausting period of lockdown has taught us anything, it would have to be what it feels like to sit with a deep longing and learning how to patiently and sometimes impatiently wait for it to be satisfied. A longing to see and hug family. A longing to travel beyond 5km. A longing to sit down in a café and have a cup of coffee. A longing to go for a walk without wearing a mask. The list goes on. This particular experience of longing is steadily drawing to a close.
It is the season of Advent, and one of Christianity’s much-loved Advent hymns begins with ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’. Charles Wesley wrote that hymn in 1744. He had been reading Haggai 2:7 and contrasted that reading with the appalling circumstances of orphaned children in his part of the world. Poverty was rife in the 18th Century. This hymn emerged out of Wesley’s prayers.
I understand that theologically and spiritually ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’, meant and means different things to different people and that all sorts of messianic hopes were being entertained before and during Jesus’s lifetime. But by drawing upon our recent COVID experience, try to imagine what it must have been like to spend your whole lifetime longing for something. Not just a few months. Longing for something or someone to interrupt a way of living that had become oppressive, toxic and hopeless.
That was life under Roman occupation and corrupt civic/religious institutional governance. But ordinary folk raised on faith stories that nourished hope in a God who would some how step-in on their behalf, kept watching and waiting for some sign that this kind of existence might come to an end – and soon!
I suspect that many of us, regardless of our ‘theological position’ have found ourselves longing for some kind of ‘divinely initiated interruption’ either for something very personal like healing from cancer, or an end to some violent domestic situation, or for some national or international circumstance like an end to the conflict in Syria. The list goes on.
And when that longing is not satisfied it’s natural to conclude that ‘interruption’ is not going to happen and that we need to dig even deeper into reserves of patience, courage and perseverance – and hope. So is it any wonder that when we catch a glimpse of something that sounds and looks like hope, we hold on to it.
The Gospels tried to capture the hope for change that Jesus brought and brings to life and faith. The writers did this by crafting birth scenarios to tell a profound story and to illustrate that when heroic faithfulness and fearless action come together things change. Interruption takes place. And because such events seem to happen rarely, then the writers concluded that it must be the consequence of a special divine initiative. But the thing is, every life can be described as a divine initiative – born of the mystery of existence.
So, when we sing ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’, let’s remember that it’s not so much a longing that Jesus himself will come amongst us again, but that when we see signs of a faith like his, then God as spirit has indeed interrupted the pattern of things – again. Human agency and courageous faith can change the world.