Somewhere near the heart of us is a wrenching longing. We experience it in different ways: as nostalgia, as homesickness, as restlessness, as grief and as mourning. Psychologists tell us that we learn to long from our birth, when we long for mother, to return to the warmth and comfort of the womb, and although we long in increasingly subtle ways, there is still the sense that we long interminably, desperately, at length – throughout our lives. From the beginning to our last breaths.
Sometimes we can put words to our longing – “love,” “friendship,” “beauty,” “home.” Sometimes it is a fundamentally ceaseless condition – a chronic desire that brooks no vocabulary – but perhaps a tune catches us, or a poem, or a sunset, and we know that ache which most haunts artists and those who are a little mad – that gives to the experience of life a poignance and depth, and which makes us restless to the end of our days.
I can never hear the Gospel from this morning without hearing in the words of Jesus a similar longing:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” “How often have I desired to gather your children together...”
The words grab me somewhere in my guts and twist, and whisper of so much longing – the longing that brings us to the edge of tears. Jesus' deep longing for his people comes through his words. There are in his words hints of the longing of the Israelites for a homeland, for a city of their own in the midst of their enemies, and there are hints of Jesus' own longing for his people that he loves, longs for and wishes to embrace. And there also the deep sadness in that longing, for even as Jesus wishes to embrace his people, he knows that they will not embrace him back, and even as his people long for a Messiah, they will receive Jesus no more than they received the prophets.
The longing, and the sadness and the desire in Jesus' words is maternal, like a mother hen, Jesus longs for his people, desires to gather and protect them. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” – the longing, the sadness and the desire. This seems, at first blush, a strange little reading for this second Sunday of Lent. Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, albeit in indirect, riddle-like ways, he scolds Herod, he scolds Jerusalem, and reveals his longing and desire for his people, and that is about it. There is no ethical teaching, no parable, and so I wonder if the longing and desire of Jesus for Jerusalem is not the teaching we are supposed to glean from this reading. I think perhaps the longing of these two sentences is perhaps more important to our Lenten journey than knowing what is to come when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem.
In the midst of this Lenten time when we are mindful of our sinfulness and the degree to which we fail to love God and fail to walk according to his commands – in the midst of this purgative time, when we give up food, or drink, or television (as my household has), we do it because we need to be reminded that Lent is about longing and desire, about an emptiness and a void, a sense of homelessness and a sense of incompleteness. Lent is about longing and desire and the longing and desire of fasting, of purgation, of mourning and desolation bring us again hopefully into the hunger and desire that we have for God. Lent is about what is lacking in our lives, or what is present and distorts our lives. And the longing and
the desire that is somewhere near the very heart of us is a longing and desire for something absent, that we replace with other things: people, or work, or money, or power, or those other little idols. All of which are there to shield us from the ache and the longing that we have for God.
Because we are not, as a culture, very good at living in a place of hunger, of desire, and of longing. We tend to foreclose, to satiate, to substitute, to anesthetize, but Lent and the longing and desire of Lent ask us to simply wait, and hope; to wait in the slow ache and agony of longing and desire for that which we cannot fully name, but which we recognize when we come face to face with it, or recognized reflected in the mirror of creation, or of a human face, or in a quiet sorrow.
The hope of this Lenten place is two-fold. One hope is that if we sit in the longing desirous waiting of Lent for long enough, we might come to recognize that our waiting, our desire, our longing is a reflection of a far greater desire and longing – Jesus looking at Jerusalem and longing for the people whose Messiah he is, and God longing for us like a lover, a mother, the Creator who made us for companionship, in his own image, and whose longing and desire is an infinite echoing cry of which ours is a slight tiny version.
We long, in other words, because God longs. We desire because God desires, and sets in us a similar desire to that which cries out in the Godhead. And so our longing and our desire is not ours alone, but part of the great symphony of the creation, echoed by stars and stones, even haltingly by foolish people.
The other hope of that this Lenten place is not eternal, that we will not have to wait forever in the slow agony of unsatisfied desire, but that someday, we will obtain what we desire, we will seek and find, we will receive “far more than we can ask or imagine.” Someday, we will get home.
For God desires us far more than we desire in our own halting fashion. God longs to welcome us, God longs, in a very real way, to have us, to possess us. And so Lent is not a punishment, but a training, not a mortification without cause, but a fast wherein we learn to taste again the heavenly food and drink, and to recognize our longing for what it is, not about any earthly thing, but a longing for Eden, for walking in the Garden with God, for the Other by which and for which we were created.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I long to gather your children...”
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
28 February 2010