Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see….
My Dad turned 80 this past year. Although Dad definitely has a softer, more compassionate side, he tends to be a rather gruff and grouchy guy - and especially during the holidays. While the rest of my family likes all the gift giving, candy making, tree-decorating hubbub of this time of year, my Dad dreads it. Scrooge is not an inadequate word to describe him.
To my Dad’s credit though, a part of the reason why he dreads Christmas is because he hates the excess and the consumerism. But more than that, Dad is not unaware of the great needs in our country and in our world. He often feels guilty when he receives all those gifts he doesn’t really need and when he eats far too much at the Christmas dinner table when so many go without.
But another reason my Dad dreads this season of the year is because it intensifies the deep sadness and loneliness that he has often struggled with. At least, this is my theory! And if I were to put a name to what my Dad is experiencing, I would call it the longing for home. Frederick Buechner writes about this extensively in his book by the same name. He starts with these words (and I paraphrase): What the word ‘home’ brings to mind, I believe, is a place, a very special place with very special attributes which make it clearly distinguishable from all other places. It is a place where you feel or did feel once uniquely ‘at home,’ and which is apt to determine the kind of place, perhaps a place inside yourself, that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware you are searching.
Buechner goes on to describe his own nomadic childhood during the great depression when his father moved from job to job in order to keep food on the table, and when a permanent (physical) home could only be wished for. During that time, Buechner recalls that his maternal grandparents’ house in Pittsburgh PA served as the space and place he called home. It was a consistent place they returned to year after year. And he remembers with fondness all the things that made it ‘home’ for him, most especially his grandmother who took a special interest in her bookish grandson.
Buechner goes on to write about the small white clapboard house in rural Vermont that he, his wife and three daughter’s would call home for thirty odd years, and he wonders: Did this home we made become for our children as richly home as my grandparent’s home had been for me as a child? Will our children remember the house in Vermont as their true home? Or are the words true home perhaps too much to apply to even the happiest home that lies within our power to create? Are they words that always point to a reality beyond themselves?
It is this longing for home that Buecher describes so poignantly in his book that I think my dear Dad struggles with this time of the year. It’s why he’s extra grumpy, why he takes all his gifts back, why he hates putting up or taking down the Christmas tree. It’s why he cries when I leave once the holidays are over. Dad can’t articulate it, I am sure, but what I think he feels is homeless. What I think he is experiencing during this time of year (most acutely) is homesickness.
And we all do, to a certain degree, yes? We might not readily recognize the feeling amidst the frenzy of this all-too-busy time of year but Advent and Christmastide – perhaps more than any other season - brings us face to face with our deepest longings and our deepest hopes for home.
In The Longing for Home, Buechner mentions living in NY City in the early 1950s and having the opportunity to attend the great preacher George Buttrick’s church. Buechner recalls one sermon in particular when Buttrick had overheard a parishioner ask another: Are you going home for Christmas? Buttrick would repeat the question from the pulpit the next week and his answer to the question was this: home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel.
Buechner doesn’t tell his reader what songs the congregation sang that day when he leaned into that holy moment and those holy words preached by the great George Buttrick, but the beautiful Christmas hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem would have been a good choice. Especially that first verse:
O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting Light,
The hopes and fears of all the years, Are met in thee tonight.
I think this hymn speaks to the longing for home that we all feel so acutely during this time of year, the Advent season. The Christ child has been born and is still being born in us. He is among us now but we also long for his coming again. We long for him to set our crooked world straight. We long for him to banish all our fears (of terrorism, terminal illness, racial violence, economic hardship and more). We long for the Christ child to finally and fully fulfill all our hopes. In short, during the Advent season, we long for home.
It’s what our forefathers in the faith longed for too. Hebrews 11 tells us that Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see … It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God. It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed that God would keep his promise. All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly home.
Friends, this Advent season may you get a joyful glimpse of home – no matter how fleeting. And may you be reminded afresh that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel. Grace and peace.
Dana Preusch serves as the Director of the Center for Pastoral Leadership. This blog was adapted from a recent address she gave to a pastors’ Christmas gathering.