Christmas and Our Longing to Belong

A young Scottish man left his coastland home and went to sea. He left quickly, without family closure. His wanderlust made him heedless of how such an abrupt departure might hurt his parents.

One cold winter night, his ship sailed north into a fierce and freezing headwind. The gale drove the boat perilously close to a rocky shore. As a pale sun rose, the ship was so near the headland that the young sailor could see the fire in the hearths sparkling through the windows of the few houses on the cliffside. Suddenly, the lad recognized his own home! Then he recalled it was Christmas Day. His parents would be by the fire, talking of the son who was gone, “a shadow on the household” festivities. “A wicked fool” he felt himself to be, as his very proximity to his childhood house heightened his distance from his loved ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson concludes his story-poem “Christmas at Sea” by saying,

But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
     Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Yearning for Home

Like no other time of year, Christmas stokes this home fire in us. The season ignites the hope, no matter how cynical we have become, that we may sit joyfully around a table with people we love and have it feel right. In spite of the disappointments, arguments, loneliness, and distorted dynamics, something in our heart stubbornly grasps the memories, no matter how fleeting, of feeling deeply known, accepted, and safe. We distill these moments to the magical tastes of joyful love. Every Christmas, we’re hoping to savor another drop. But it’s a daunting quest.

“Since we forfeited the garden, humans have been pierced with a home-longing.”

Since we forfeited the garden, humans have been pierced with a home-longing. We leave home looking to find home. Yet it always seems to elude us. It’s never the same if we go back. Our own new relationships still leave us with the ancient yearning. The Welsh use the word hiraeth (hee′-ryth) to describe the powerful, unassuageable cry for home. Hiraeth evokes the stab the roamer feels upon at last arriving back: this isn’t it. There’s yet a farther shore more home than even this cherished place. We can dream of it, but we don’t know how to get there.

I’d like to suggest this Christmas that we allow this hiraeth to draw us to the manger. For there our true Home arrived to gather us back. He who is our heart’s homeland took up residence within the broken, ruined land of our lonely exile. The Son of God came to get us and bring us back to communion with his Father and the Spirit.

Follow the Golden Thread

Even as an infant and young boy, Jesus was magnetic to those who longed to know God and see his glory, whether they were shepherds from the nearby fields or the wise magi from far eastern lands. To the eyes of faith, the baby in swaddling cloths was journey’s end. For those early worshipers intuited what they probably could not express: in the incarnation, the eternal Son brothered us by taking true humanity as his own (Hebrews 2:11).

“In Christ, we can taste home now, even knowing we will still pine for a full arrival.”

The child means that the triune God refused to be without us. He wants to be known, related to, and loved back by those who see in Jesus just how utterly he loves us. As Mary holds Jesus close, we stand amazed that the Son of God so joined himself to us. He came to gather us that he might present back to his Father those joined to him by faith. So, from his first arrival, this Jesus was “bringing many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). In Christ, we can taste home now, even knowing we will still pine for a full arrival.

Undergirding this astounding event of incarnation is the promise God made to his people from the beginning. Even before we were expelled from Eden, the triune God had planned how to bring us home. From Genesis to Revelation, there runs a covenant promise of steadfast love: “I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). You can follow this golden thread through a cascade of passages (including Genesis 17:7; Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 31:33–34; Ezekiel 37:27; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10; Revelation 21:3). In ever more intimate and redeeming ways, the triune God proves to be our home-maker until finally we dwell directly with him, where there is no more sighing or pain, but only life everlasting in communion.

At Home in Our Hearts

God answers our cry of hiraeth through the centuries with the arrival of Jesus in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4). The Son of God wanted to be with us so much that he took up flesh and blood and “pitched his tent” among us (John 1:14). Each time the news is told and believed, the Holy Spirit pours into a heart a home-cry that now has a name. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6). We get to taste his presence now even as we anticipate our full arrival. It’s as if the triune God says to us, “I am your God, and you are my child. You will come home to me, no matter where you are or what you are going through. For in the end, I make all things new.”

This Jesus, who arrived in our midst at Christmas, grew up to be the man called a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34). They meant it pejoratively, but we know it as a precious title of our Redeemer. Jesus, our brother in shared humanity, is yet the friend “who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Because he is also the heart of our own heart. The true home-maker.

This Advent, we can imagine this child, this God with us, and how much he must love us to bring elusive Home down to us. Then, we can pour our hearts more fully into the carols we sing. We can love him more as we worship him more. We can read all the great Christmas texts. We can follow the golden thread of his home-creating promises. We can be moved to offer him the Christmas present of our enthusiastically wanting to keep his word day by day. These are the ways into a magnificent promise Jesus made: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

Our Homecoming Song

The hiraeth will cry for home through us all our earthly days. But when we know where that cry directs us, our pining does not leave us bereft. For we know we have a friend, our brother Jesus, who has secured our passage home. His Spirit sings through us right now. The hiraeth is a homecoming song and unites us to our fellow travelers in a communion deeper than we may ever have known before.

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man! Home has come into the ruin and opened the garden to us once more.