Do you remember as a child anxiously and breathlessly waiting for Christmas to come?
In my childhood home, we followed the tradition of gathering as a family to read the Christmas story and open gifts on Christmas Eve (followed by stocking stuffers on Christmas morning!). I remember when I was about 8 years old that the wait was particularly difficult. I anticipated and dreamed of getting a Meccano set, though I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting it. So it seemed like torture waiting for gift opening time.
However, after Dad’s customary reading of the Christmas story, we were ready to open our presents. I tore into my present and was thrilled with the discovery of my Meccano set!
And even though that toy was the source of many hours of enjoyment and learning in months and years to come, I also distinctly remember that by the end of Christmas Day, I had these strange feelings of let-down, or mild disappointment.
It wasn’t disapppointment about the gifts—I loved what I had received. But it was that all the anticipation and euphoria was followed by a strange feeling of sadness and even a tinge of emptiness. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how much I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy that made coming down from the euphoria a bit more noticeable to my eight-year old self.
C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht, and Christmas
C.S. Lewis adopted a German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht (ZANE-zookt). It was a word Lewis used often to describe the deep longings and desires of the soul that were often left unfulfilled. Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “yearning, or wistful longing.” It’s a difficult concept to put into words (though Lewis is one of the best to do so), but most of us get it because we’ve all felt it at one point or another. We’ve hoped, and despaired when hope did not play out, often enough in our life that we intuitively understand Sehnsucht.
Christmas can be a dangerous and depressing time of year for many. We put so much stock into the season, anticipating that it will somehow be “magical” and deeply satisfying, only to find ourselves with that feeling of emptiness again. It probably doesn’t help either when we find ourselves wondering why many of us don’t have the same excitement or anticipation in the Christmas season as we once did when we were kids.
However, rather than seeing the unsatisfied longings that are sparked and dashed often at Christmas, it may be better to ask ourselves what that longing, that wistfulness, is itself pointing to.
Here Lewis comes to the rescue. In discussing Sehnsucht in his famous little book, Mere Christianity, he puts it this way:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
I’m a bit theologically nervous with Lewis’ last phrase which speaks of being made for another world, even though I do buy into what I think he intends to say. In saying that we were made for another world, we need to be careful not to read into Lewis here a kind of escapism or even a tinge of Gnosticism: Lewis is too careful a thinker to do that. He wasn’t saying that we need somehow to escape God’s creation or that only an escape from this world will satisfy our deepest longings.
Rather, I think Lewis’ sense here is more along the lines of Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am not of this world.” (John 8:23). Here Jesus isn’t saying that he does not share our humanity—he most certainly did and does, and Christmas is that time when we affirm that God’s Son took on full and permanent humanity. Rather, he is saying is that the origin or source of his identity and person is not derived from the created world, but from his Father in heaven.
The true Desire of our Desires
Christmas is ironically a time when we hope to see our deepest longings and desires to be fulfilled, only to find ourselves over and over again deeply disappointed. The gifts and family times and turkey meals are all great, and I’m not critiquing those things which can serve up good moments of joy delight.
However, the strange paradox of Christmas is that so many hopes are placed in things that cannot ultimately satisfy, even though Christmas is the time to commemorate the coming of the One who truly is the “desire of the nations.” As the prophet Haggai foretold:
I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Hard to believe that the babe in a manger is the one who will shake the nations, and yet he is indeed the one whom the nations truly desire—despite their, and our, unwillingness or failure to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of the deepest desires and longings of our hearts.