by Ruth Haley Barton, author and founder of the Transforming Center (Used with permission)
Apparently American consumerism has reached a new low. As one news article described it, “The gravy was still warm. The Dallas Cowboys were still in uniform. Thanks were still being given across the country as the pilgrimages to the stores began. Lured by earlier-than-ever Black Friday sales, people left Grandma and Grandpa in search of Samsung and Toshiba. They did not go blindly. In dozens of interviews, people acknowledged how spending has become inseparable from the holidays.” 
For our international friends who may not be familiar with this esteemed American tradition, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving in which people try to get a head start on their holiday shopping. Retailers facilitate the process by offering the promise of the season’s lowest prices, opening their doors at the crack of dawn with door-buster sales and the like. This year, in an attempt to get a jump on things, many retailers opened their doors at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving night and shoppers, obligingly, came out in droves.
While admitting that it felt wrong to be out spending money on Thanksgiving night instead of lingering with family, shoppers were out anyway, carts full of deeply discounted iPads, Smartphones, and flat-screen televisions. Somehow they felt powerless against the holiday season’s “perfect storm of emotion and tradition” as though they had no choice but to shop. As one shopper acknowledged uncomfortably, “You have to have these things to enjoy your children and your family…It shouldn’t be that way but in a sense there’s no way around it. Everything ends up with a dollar amount. Even your happiness.” 
Lord, have mercy.
‘Tis the Season
And so the holidays begin…the season when superficial wants get confused with the deeper longings of the human heart. When giving the latest techno-toy gets confused with giving love. When magical thinking prevails, suggesting that spending money on others or ourselves can somehow make up for whatever else is lacking. ‘Tis the season when the kingdom of consumerism seems to reign, even as the kingdom of God draws near.
In the midst of our distress at seeing consumers lured prematurely from practicing gratitude to the frenzied scramble for the perfect gift at the lowest possible price, the themes of Advent are more needed than ever. In fact, the Scriptures for the first week of Advent call us—in the midst of so much distraction—to pay attention to the deeper desires of the heart.
Jeremiah expresses the longing of a whole nation to see God’s promise of righteousness, justice and peace fulfilled. The Psalmist speaks for all spiritual seekers when he cries out “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you, I put my trust. Lead me in your truth and teach me…For you I wait all day long.” Paul expresses a tender longing to see his loved ones face to face so that they might be mutually strengthened and encouraged by one another’s physical presence. And the Gospel reminds us that even in the midst of world events and private concerns that cause great worry, we need to stay awake to our deeper longing for the kingdom of God—that state of existence in which God’s will is done on earth and in our lives as is in heaven.
Listening to our Longings
When Jesus was here on earth he routinely asked people questions like “What do you want? What are you seeking? What do you want me to do for you?” Such pointed inquiries brought focus to his interactions with those who were spiritually hungry because they evoked deeply honest reflection and decisive action within the person to whom the question was addressed.
In John 1, Jesus’ question to the disciples about what they were seeking opened up the opportunity to follow Jesus to the place where he was staying and eventually becoming his followers. When Bartimaeus got in touch with his desire to see again and said it out loud to Jesus, it opened him to Jesus’ healing power and set him on a new path. (Mark 10:51) When the invalid at the Pool of Bethsaida stopped making excuses and acted upon his desire to be healed, he was able to make choices that were congruent with what he said he really wanted. (John 5:1-9) 
Why did Jesus ask such pointed and personal questions? Perhaps because he knew that such questions open up a world of possibility—the possibility of actually making choices that are congruent with what we say we really want. He seemed to understand that being in touch with our true desire can be catalytic for one’s spiritual life because it is the most powerful motivator for a life lived consistently with intentionality and focus.
Clarity about our desires can determine whether we linger with family or go shopping on Thanksgiving night. It can influence what we spend our time, our money and our energies on this season. It can shape what consumes our thoughts, our imaginations, and our attentions in the coming weeks. It might even determine whether we lift our souls to God this season and wait for him to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts or whether we keep worshipping at the temples of consumerism.
So what about you? When was the last time you felt it—real longing, that is? When was the last time you even attempted to discern the difference between superficial human wanting and the deeper desires of your own soul? If Jesus were to ask you at the beginning of this Advent season, what do you want—really—would you even know what to say?
Today marks the beginning of Advent and the new Church year. Let’s begin it together by getting clear on what we really desire and then allowing our truest desires to shape each and every decision we make. Rather than being afraid of our desires or distracting ourselves from the truest ones, let’s remember that “the more authentic our desires, the more they touch upon our identities and also the reality of God at the heart of our being. Our most authentic desires spring ultimately from the deep inner wells where the longing for God runs freely.”
These are the true desires of the heart that God longs to meet as we wait for him.
 “Explaining Black Friday’s Powerful Pull,” Daily Herald, Nov. 25, 2012 , Section 1, page 12.
 For more on the subject of desire and spiritual life, see chapter one of Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, InterVarsity Press, 2006.
 Phillip Sheldrake, S.J., Befriending Our Desires (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1994), p. 22.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life, including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence. Click here to learn more about the Transforming Center.