Michael Gerson’s column in today’s Washington Post (“This Christmas, hope may feel elusive. But despair is not the answer”) provided me the turning phrase I’ve been seeking this Christmas Eve, the gift of a night that invites me to put down “the burdens of desires.”
“The context of the Nativity story is misunderstood hope,” Gerson writes. The characters in the story expect the Messiah to “deliver them from exile and enemies. This was essentially the embodied belief that something different and better was possible — that some momentous divine intervention could change everything. But the long-expected event arrived in an entirely unexpected form.”
Gerson writes, the God who comes this night “offers a different kind of security than the fulfillment of our deepest wishes.” Instead, “He promises a transformation of the heart in which we release the burdens of our desires.”
I have long tracked the desires of my heart, sought to discern the texture and tug of my longings and how they are calling me to respond. Tried to distinguish the desire of God from the desire of my ego. Tried to be faithful and yes, failed when the desire of yesterday has turned from the desire of today. Puzzled over that, the why and wherefore of the whims of desire and whether they can be trusted. Known the heartache of longing for things to turn out as I have desired them to be and the grief of when they have not. Yes, known the burdens of my desires.
Almost two years ago now, I came to Boothbay Harbor full of desire. I had pockets full of expectation and desire of what I hoped might happen in our journey together. Came full of my passion and my ideas of who they might become and what we might explore together. Came, yes, full of desire to be successful in my first interim experience and to do something that mattered together.
But five weeks after my arrival, with covid surging in mid-coast Maine, I had to begin to put down all my desires and longing for how I wanted things to be and face the reality of how things were. Had to put down all my wonderful plans, all my longing and hopes of how I imagined things to be, and lean in with the church leaders and community to wonder. Had to slowly let go of what I now had to accept was my outmoded desire. Had to learn and discern with others in the desolation of the present moment how to respond when we could not predict how things might be in the next.
It’s easy to run to the longed for desires of this night.
Easy to get lost in the grief of things not being as we may have desired them to be.
Easy to have it be a time of aching and sometimes, yes, this is how it is.
But what if the possibility of this night is a gift that comes from releasing the burden of our desire?
What if the possibility of the transformation of our hearts comes this night in a breathing out, a letting go of the weight and restlessness, grief and despair, passion and potency of our desiring and welcoming in the emptying of this night?
An emptying which makes room for Christmas, makes room for everything beyond what we even dreamed hoping for.