Advent 1: No Between

By Jan Richardson

No Between © Jan Richardson

Lection from the Hebrew Scriptures, Advent 1: Isaiah 64.1-9

Whenever I lead a retreat, I take along some art supplies for folks who want to do some creative work in our times of reflection. Paper collage—the medium through which I began to experience myself as an artist—is a particularly user-friendly medium that I love to use with groups, and so I always bring an array of gorgeous papers of wondrous patterns and textures and hues. I tell people that it’s okay to tear the papers, and that tearing them often creates more interesting effects than simply using scissors. I know my own work took a richer turn when I gave myself permission to be less precise and to trust the unpredictability that comes with ripping the papers. I can’t always control the direction the tear will go. That is the challenge, and the gift.

People often have a hard time tearing into the papers. “They’re too pretty to rip!” they say. When they make one small tear, however, and see the edge that’s revealed, something in them shifts. One of my favorite sounds is a quiet room filled with the music of paper giving way and new edges appearing, meeting, joining.

I will admit, though, that I found it hard to tear today’s collage. I really liked how it looked when it first took shape: a slice of a universe, twelve square inches of firmament pieced together there on my drafting table. I had gone into it knowing I would, in due course, rend it. But when it was time to tear my collaged cosmos, I balked. What if it didn’t tear the right way? What if I ruined the little universe I had so painstakingly fashioned?

I tore. The piece, after all, is a visual reflection on this week’s lection from Isaiah, in which the writer cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” He is pleading with the Creator to rip apart the cosmos, to come close, to cross the distance that the writer and his people are feeling so keenly.

The author of this portion of Isaiah most likely wrote these words during the time following the Israelites’ return from their exile in Babylon. Having made their way home, they were wrestling with questions of what their life, their community, their relationship with God would look like now. Isaiah 64 gives voice to their longing for a God who seems absent, even as they grapple with guilt over their own brokenness.

“You have hidden your face from us,” the writer says to God. His accusation haunts me, as does God’s response in the following chapter: “I was ready,” God replies, “to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name” (Is. 65.1).

It might be easy to chide the writer for accusing God of hiding when, in fact, the people of Israel seem to have been the ones turning their faces from God. Yet I know that very impulse in my own self, am well acquainted with the part of me that yearns for God even at the same time that I put up resistance.

In the midst of that “Come closer, go away” dance that I sometimes do with God, I periodically stop to wonder, what is it that I’m doing anyway, asking for the living God to become known to me? I think of Annie Dillard’s question in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, where, in reflecting on the ways we speak to God in worship services, she asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” She goes on to observe, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

That’s the crux of it, that latter possibility that Dillard offers: at the heart of my resistant longing for God is the knowledge that to call upon the living God, to ask the Creator to tear open and rip into my universe, means giving myself to the prospect, the surety, that God will draw me out to places from which I can never return. Like tearing into the paper, but on a vaster scale, I cannot control the direction this will go.

That is the challenge, and the gift.

This business of asking God to come close, though, to tear through the separateness in order to reach us: that’s not how it really works, of course. The tearing doesn’t go in that direction, as if God needed to punch a hole in some far-off heaven in order to come down to us. The incarnation, which we anticipate and celebrate in this season, reminds us that God is ever present, immanent, closer than our breathing. Just this week I came again across this reminder from Julian of Norwich: “Betwixt us and God,” the medieval English mystic wrote, “there is no between.”

If God pervades all creation, pervades us, then the barrier that needs to be torn away isn’t outside us; it’s within. In our own interior universe, in the cosmos we carry inside us, God lives, moves, breathes. What do we need to tear away, to tear through, to tear down, in order to receive this? What do we balk at tearing because we think it is too precious to us or because we fear to lose control over the direction it will go? How do we need to unhide ourselves in order to find and welcome the God who is already with us? What door in our souls does God long for us to open? In these Advent days, how will we turn our faces toward the God who welcomes the exiles home?

Betwixt you and God, may you know no between. Blessings.

[To use the image “No Between,” please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

3 Responses to “Advent 1: No Between”

  1. Melynne Rust Says:

    Thank you, Jan, once again, for providing The Advent Door. I really appreciate how you reflect on each lection. It’s hard to find advent devotions that follow the lectionary. I also appreciate your thought-provoking, soul-searching questions, which are exactly what I need during this season. Thank you so very much for the blessing that you are through this venue!

  2. phyllis Says:

    I understand the hesitancy to “tear” because of the “uncontrolled” consequence: will it be what I expected? will it be better or worse? will I have to start over? The prompting to consider what is inside that needs to be torn away or what door needs to be opened is quite startling to ponder. I hope in this season of reflection, I can let go enough to let Christ do the tearing and opening so I can receive Him and what He wants to give; to know God is closer than my breathing.

  3. Rosemary Beales Says:

    Thank you, Jan! I am coming back to this post a month later, because it has stayed with me, and because I am always drawn to Jesus’ seeing “the heavens torn apart” in the baptismal scene coming up next week. Thank you for helping me SEE as well as FEEL this experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *