I didn’t know it was possible to experience such sweetness in the middle of the story, in the places without resolution or certainty. Yet the Christmas season seems to be the perfect place to wrestle with and settle into contentment in the tension.
In high school, I went on a mission trip to the Czech Republic with my youth group. I loved building relationships with friends from a different culture, and we would often talk about the ways we did things in America vs. Europe. A Czech student told me that one thing he had observed about Americans was how we always wanted happy endings. He referenced our Disney movies and talked about how the traditional fairy tales often had different endings, or at least went about in other ways to reach their conclusion.
His example was the ending of The Little Mermaid, as in the traditional story the Prince marries someone else (not Ursula in disguise–that plot twist was created by Disney) and Ariel becomes a spirit in the sky.
In college, as I was doing research for a lit analysis, I discovered that in the Grimm Brothers’ story of Cinderella, one of the stepsisters cuts off her big toe and the other cuts off part of her heel so that the slipper fits, and the trail of blood is what gives both of them away.
Neither of those examples made the Disney cut. And for good reason–children wouldn’t like it. Honestly, I wouldn’t like it. We typically want to see stories wrap up the way we expect, the way we want our own lives to settle up. There’s a happily-ever-after bow that we expect to be tied onto the end of our stories, and until that bow is there, we find ourselves feeling as if something is not right.
In one sense, this longing can remind us that the story is not over. But in another way, it can keep us from appreciating where we are at right now, as if we can’t be okay in the middle of the story if we don’t know the ending (or if the ending doesn’t look to be happy).
I notice this as people talk to us about our infertility. I am so grateful to have friends who are still praying for us to conceive and become parents. That is still the desire of our hearts. But that can sometimes feel like the only option, the thing we are waiting for in order to be happy, and before that happens, we have to be doing everything we can to get that happy ending.
When we are in a place of contentment despite this unfulfilled desire, I feel I have to defend why we aren’t continuing to take steps to try new things. Why we aren’t moving forward with procedures that can attempt to overcome the obstacles in our bodies. Why we aren’t ready to pursue adoption.
Our friends want that happy ending for us. I want that. But I am learning that it’s not as much about happy endings as it is being present in the story. As Americans–and especially as American Christians–we aren’t always good at this. It’s as if our faith adds a new dimension onto this perceived need to be happy, to be able to say “God is good!” no matter what. And he is. But in the familiarity of this, or in using it as a band-aid to hide our disappointment, we can sometimes miss the beauty of the tension found in our longing.
The traditional Christmas hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” captures this tension in a sad yet lovely way.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
This hymn is a realistic reminder that we are caught in a not-yet-fulfilled desire for Messiah’s return, just as the Jews in the Old Testament were waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah. This is what Advent is all about, a recognition of our wait and his promised coming.
And yet, in the middle of the wait, before the promise is fulfilled, the command from these lyrics is to rejoice because he is coming. There is hope in the wait, and the ability to rejoice while we the wait is prompted by a recognition of what’s lacking tied to the hope of its fulfillment.
It’s not an ignorance of what’s lacking, or even a forced decision that the lack really doesn’t matter that much so it shouldn’t keep us from rejoicing–both of which are temptations I have felt to help me cope in my own waiting seasons in life.
Instead, we acknowledge our need for Christ and rejoice as we wait for him because it has been promised that he is coming again. And I am experiencing God’s presence in the wait as I ask for even more of it. That’s what I find myself praying as I sing this hymn–“O come, God with us, and be with me as I wait for you.”
All of our lives we will live in some sort of unresolved tension. Happily ever after won’t fully come until Christ’s return. But that doesn’t mean that the rejoicing is on hold–in fact, that anticipation can make rejoicing now even sweeter.
I don’t know what your lack is right now. I don’t know what you find yourself waiting for or longing for. But I do know that all of our desires are met in Him (Psalm 10:17, Psalm 145:16, Isaiah 58:11), and in the middle of the wait, there is joy to be found because God is here and he is coming again.
“Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14)