Harrowing Of Hell
December 3, 2023

Cowboy Boots, Cultural Christmas, and the Soul’s Longing for God

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

It came into my mind that I needed a pair of cowboy boots. I’ve had cowboy boots before, in fact, I used to have two pairs. But my son absconded with one, and I sent the other to my nephew for a cowboy themed wedding he was going to. And suddenly, I didn’t have any cowboy boots.

I like cowboy boots, and they are comfortable. It’s not that I wore them often. I’m not a cowboy. I don’t ride a horse. I used to have a horse that I rode, but we got rid of it when I was in 5th grade.

Nonetheless, I decided it was time for another pair. I started to research them online; which means, I will forever get pop up ads for cowboy boots, and other “western” clothing accoutrements. I found a pair made in Mexico, with rubber soles, which made them practical for Seattle. So, I ordered them.

Then I waited, and waited, and as I did the anticipation built. I’m 56 years old, and I waited for those cowboy boots like I was a kid waiting for Christmas morning. It was a little embarrassing to admit, especially since there’s no great ending to this story. But we’ll soldier on. Anyway, I finally got an email from UPS that said they would arrive in three days…good grief.

They came on Veterans’ Day, when my wife happened to be home. She brought the box in and asked: “What’s this?” “Just some shoes,” I said. It’s not like I needed cowboy boots. And I can assure you she doesn’t think of me as a cowboy. Nor do I, although maybe I am because you can’t claim to not be a cowboy kind of guy and also wear cowboy boots.

It’s like being a Christian in Seattle; it is hard to claim non-affiliation and still go to church. But we can try…“I go because I like the music.” “I go because it gives me a place to space out.” “I go because it gives me a chance to be around kids…or old people, depending.”“I go because I like the music” …Did I already say that?” Heck it’s probably more common to run across a person wearing cowboy boots in this city than a self-proclaiming Christian.

Anyway, back to the boots. I took them up to my study to try them on. They were too small.  And not just a little too small, they were so too small that I couldn’t even get my foot in the boot. In fact, trying to put my foot into the boot caused my calf to cramp and it was sore for two days. (I’m better now).

Anyway, I went online, found the return form, and sent them back, in exchange for a bigger size. Then I had to wait again. Hope, expectation, anticipation… finally they arrived. Longing fulfilled.

But what happened next is what always happens when I mislocate longing. It is the fig tree story we find in the Gospel today. The boots came. I put on the boots. They are almost perfect; one foot fits better than the other… But as I slipped them on the anticipation was gone, hope left the room when the package arrived, and while I now have rubber soled cowboy boots, which is fine; the longing that triggered the impulse to buy the boots in the first place was not eliminated by their presence.

Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century theologian gave this longing a Latin description: Desiderium visionis Dei, which means; “The soul has an ardent longing to see God, and this is the principle purpose of life.” Aquinas claimed, and I believe, that hardwired within every single soul is the desire to be completely subsumed by the God that made us, the God that loves us, the God that is drawing us towards God’s self.

One of my new favorite theologians is a French Jesuit priest, who died in 1955 named Teilhard de Chardin. He was a scientist, a paleontologist to be exact, and, it seems now, a prophetic voice for the age of the Internet, artificial intelligence, and a Second Axial age, which is something you’ll hear more about at some future point.

Anyway, in one of Teilhard’s most influential books, The Phenomenon of Man, he introduces an idea called Point Omega, which represents a place in the future, indeed, at the end of all time, (hence the name Omega), in which God is drawing all things unto God’s self; particularly us. This drawing is experienced through our longings; like a moth to a lamp, like a skipped stone to the bottom of a pond.

As a scientist, Tielhard believed that evolution is the process through which all things are moving toward full unity with one another, which is also full union with God…Point Omega. This evolution has a feeling of anticipation and longing. It is a feeling that something is missing, revealed as an untethered yearning in each one of us.

The Christmas season capitalizes on this yearning, literally. The economics of capitalism has figured out the Desiderium visionis minus the Dei. Desire and longing without God will get you cowboy boots; and that is not bad, it just is not the point, and it certainly will not fulfill the principle purpose of life.

Advent, then, provides a corollary to the consumer culture of Christmas, designed to return our attention to the soul’s ardent longing for God. The music we sing in Advent makes the point powerfully: “Come, thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in thee.”

Jesus is the landing pad for our longing. He is hope fulfilled as the person through whom our union with God can be practically played out. His name makes this claim, Emmanuel, God with us. “O’ come, O’ come, Emmanuel;” another Advent song that powerfully points to the soul ‘s longing for union with God. Then Jesus arrives and suddenly our soul has a pilgrimage partner that is both here and yet to come; both present and Point Omega.

So, what does any of this have to do with the fig tree we find in Mark’s Gospel today? It is a desolate image; one that Jesus condemns elsewhere in the Gospel (Matt 24:32-35) to bear no fruit. It is important to remember, where we encounter an obscure reference like this fig tree in scripture, that in the minds of the people that Jesus was speaking to a scriptural link was immediately made. They were completely familiar with the Bible, through and through.

And so, the fig tree reference most likely draws their minds to the minor prophet Habakkuk 3:17-18. And I quote: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food…Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exalt in the God of my salvation.”

Habakkuk’s insight is that longing for a fig or an olive, may satiate a moment, but never provide salvation for the soul. “Longing remains,” as Saint Augustine of Hippo reminds us, “until it rests in God.”

We are the generation that Jesus is speaking to, you and I in this room, and you who join us online. We are meant to discover the limitations of this created realm; this realm of tasks and stuff.

Jesus reminds us that heaven and earth will pass away; that the created realm will falter and fail over and over again in satisfying the hardwired longing of our souls. There is no Desiderium visionis without the Dei.

Heaven and earth are both created realms. Recall the first line in the book of Genesis tells us so: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). They were spoken into being, created by the Word, and as we are reminded in today’s Gospel: the “Word will not pass away” (Mk 13:37).

The Word, in fact, becomes flesh, and we know him by name, Jesus: the one with whom we can walk; the one with whom we can talk; the one capable of untethering us from a world jammed with tasks and stuff. It is upon him that we cast hopes and longings and expectations.

So, seek him out. Prepare your hearts, unleash your longing.

Advent is designed for this seeking, it is organized to tweak our yearning, and fire our anticipation. Dwell in that anticipation. I do so in the music of Advent, and by reading prayers and Psalms from Hour-By-Hour, and taking long walks, and lighting the Advent wreath; by going to church, by slowing down, and carving out sacred silence in the midst of the obligations and the algorithms of cultural Christmas.

Let your longing fall upon the God that made you, and knows you, and loves you, and who came to be present with you in this world. God with us… Emmanuel: the name, the word, the point, the purpose, the satisfaction, the salvation of our souls.