by Maggie Olson
I was quite young when I first felt it. Sitting in church on Christmas Eve, I was sandwiched between my dad and my little brother, gazing at the decorations that glowed in the dim sanctuary. The music, the story, the anticipatory energy filled my heart with longing.
I wanted something more than the gifts that awaited me under the Christmas tree, something that unwrapping packages couldn’t satisfy.
Fast forward 10 to 15 years, my senior year in college. My Literary Criticism and Theory professor is introducing us to the work of Jacques Lacan, a 20th-century psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who ruffled feathers with the same gusto as Freud. Lacan wrote that desire—an unavoidable part of the human experience—is not the same as need, and it can never be fulfilled.
Desire is a driving force, a compulsion toward that which we believe will satisfy our wants. Yet striving to fulfill desire is inherently fruitless. According to my professor’s example of her own life, obtaining the object for your desire will not satisfy you; instead, it will merely shine a light on the next thing you feel compelled to chase, the next thing you long for.
Christmas as desire
Hasn’t Christmas become, in some ways, the very kingdom of that desire? Advertisers invite us to long for material goods, promising a merry Christmas if only you purchase this toy, this purse, this gadget, this decoration. For weeks, we make lists of what we want and dash from store to store as we seek to fulfill the wants of our loved ones. We even teach our children to tell Santa what they want.
And yet we all know in our hearts that we won’t be satisfied by the material trappings that run alongside the Advent season. We’ve listened to plenty of sermons. We’ve seen meaningful quotes on bumper stickers and Pinterest. We’ve read the blogs that start bouncing around email and Facebook the minute Christmas decorations hit the stores.
We may wait for a new yoga mat or mixer or jewelry, but once it is received, that satisfaction is forgotten behind the shadow of the next must-have. So fleeting in fact, that December 26 finds many of us at the mall, wallets out, ready to snap up bargain buys before we’ve even thrown out the paper that hid the gifts we received the previous day.
That childhood Christmas Eve was my first true experience of Advent. Longing, after all, is what Advent is all about: our deep, joyful longing for the coming of the Christ child; the arrival of hope and light amid dark winter nights.
And that’s where Lacan got it wrong. The fact that we are unsatisfied by so much proves our longing for Christ. And our longing for the Christ child is not swiftly satisfied desire, cast aside to make room for the next shiny new thing. No. The arrival of the Messiah is the only thing that can truly satisfy human desire.