Archive for the ‘Book of Isaiah’ Category

Advent 3: In Sorrow and Celebration

December 11, 2016

Image: The Desert in Advent © Jan Richardson

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom.
—Isaiah 35.1

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Advent 3: Isaiah 35.1-10

Yesterday we had a party to celebrate the release of my new book, The Cure for Sorrow.  In the midst of the celebration, I gave a reading. As I began, I took in the faces of those who had gathered: longtime friends, new acquaintances, people I was meeting for the first time that day. They were beautiful and wondrous and graced. I told them this was the real reason I wrote books: to be able to have a gathering like this, to be with all of them together in the same room.

I was joking only a little.

Following so close on the third anniversary of Gary’s death, it came as a particular grace to gather with these particular folks. We were there because of a book about grief. Yet in the midst of the sorrow we have each carried, there was the presence of joy, of hearts open to the ways that God leavens our grief with gladness.

We sometimes draw sharp distinctions between grief and joy, sorrow and celebration. This is understandable, given how loss lays waste to our hearts and alters the world we have known and loved. The season of Advent, however, challenges the notion that joy and sorrow live in separate realms, that we can have one or the other but never both at the same time.

In one of the readings for this week, we encounter Isaiah’s description of a creation rejoicing in its redemption. His vision is not just of a far-off future for which we have to wait; it is a vision of the life that God offers to us here and now.

This is what Christ came to show us, to embody in our midst. In our keenest sorrow, in our deepest darkness, Christ entered as joy enfleshed. He showed us that celebration is not a someday thing, a state of joyous completion that we cannot attain until life gets better. Rejoicing is what happens when, in the midst of the darkness that attends us, we open our hearts to the Christ who comes to us still. Celebration is what happens when we allow sorrow to have its say but refuse to let it have the final word.

In this season, what gives you cause for rejoicing?

Blessing the Desert

Ask me what
this blessing sounds like
and I will tell you
about the wind
that hollows everything
it finds.

I will tell you
about locusts
who chose this night
to offer their awful,
rasping song.

I will tell you
about rock faces
and how it sounds
when what was sturdy
and solid
suddenly shears away.

But give me long enough,
and I will tell you also
how beneath the wind,
a silence,

not of absence
or of agony
that leaves all speechless
and stricken
when it comes,
but of rest,
of dreaming,

of the seed
that knows its season

and the wordless
canticle of stars
that will not cease
their singing
even when we cannot bear
to hear.

—Jan Richardson
from The Cure for Sorrow

The Cure for SorrowJUST RELEASED!

A blessing meets us in the place of our deepest loss. In that place, it gives us a glimpse of wholeness and claims that wholeness here and now. —from the Introduction

Jan’s much-anticipated new book enters with heartbreaking honesty into the rending that loss brings. It moves, too, into the unexpected shelters of solace and hope, inviting us to recognize the presence of love that, as she writes, is “sorrow’s most lasting cure.”

Order the Book

 

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “The Desert in Advent,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. During Advent, subscribe to Jan Richardson Images and receive unlimited digital downloads for only $125 per year (regularly $165). Click Subscribe to sign up.

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

Christmas Eve: Light Has Shined

December 21, 2015

Those Who Walked in DarknessImage: Those Who Walked in Darkness © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures for Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
—Isaiah 9.2

Friends, as we approach this Christmas Eve, I want to share with you a reflection that I wrote for the first Christmas Eve after Gary died, along with a blessing from Circle of Grace. The reflection was part of the Illuminated Advent Retreat in 2013, which Gary and I were to lead together; he died just as the retreat was beginning. In that first Advent of astonishing loss, when I could hardly see the next step ahead of me, traveling with that retreat community was a tremendous gift and grace.

In this Christmas Eve reflection, I wrote about wanting to know the sense of arrival that Isaiah evokes in this passage. Two years along this grieving path, I still cannot say that I have that sense of arrival, but I do have a sense that I am entering into a new place. It is a place still marked by struggle and deep loss. But it is not without light, or astounding grace. For what shimmers along the way—for Gary’s life that continues to offer extraordinary light for the path, and for the light that you, my friends, bear on this road—I give great thanks.

For Christmas Eve

These words from Isaiah, which are often read on Christmas Eve, have long been among my favorite words of this season. This year they tug at me with particular insistence. There is such a sense of arrival in these words; a spirit of emerging, of entering into a new place after fierce struggle, long wandering, deep loss.

I want to be there, to know that sense of arrival. I want to know what it feels like to stand with those who have traveled through the deep darkness and have made it through, have emerged into the light. A great light, Isaiah calls it.

It is daunting to feel like that light is a long way off, that there are such large shadows across the path ahead of me. Yet there are glimpses and glimmers, hints and signs. The beautiful postcard that comes from Sarah today, assuring me, in large letters, You will be okay! The email from Janice, asking me, Do you need someone to weep with you? When you are ready to come for lunch, I’ll make you soup and tea and, yes, that cherry pie I promised you. The visit with Gary’s son tonight, and the solace of seeing Gary’s gifts at play in this remarkable young man.

Such moments remind me that even when our path is shadowed, Christ calls us in this season to look for what shimmers along the way. Though it may be some time before the path begins to look more brilliant to me, these moments of grace offer light enough: for this moment, this breath, this step. These luminous moments also invite me to remember that the season of Advent isn’t simply about waiting for the light to show up. More than this, Advent is about learning to see. Advent is a journey that asks us to open our eyes and look for the light that is already here, for the illumination that might already be in our midst in ways we have not been willing or ready to perceive.

This Christmas Eve, may we open our eyes to the luminous moments that come bearing the grace and love of Christ our Light. May we receive illumination enough for this step, this breath, this day.

How the Light Comes

I cannot tell you
how the light comes.

What I know
is that it is more ancient
than imagining.

That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.

That it loves
searching out
what is hidden,
what is lost,
what is forgotten
or in peril
or in pain.

That it has a fondness
for the body,
for finding its way
toward flesh,
for tracing the edges
of form,
for shining forth
through the eye,
the hand,
the heart.

I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.

And so
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still

to the blessed light
that comes.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace


New from Jan Richardson

CIRCLE OF GRACE: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons

Circle of GraceWithin the struggle, joy, pain, and delight that attend our life, there is an invisible circle of grace that enfolds and encompasses us in every moment. Blessings help us to perceive this circle of grace, to find our place of belonging within it, and to receive the strength the circle holds for us. from the Introduction

Beginning in Advent and moving through the sacred seasons of the Christian year, Circle of Grace offers Jan’s distinctive and poetic blessings that illuminate the treasures each season offers to us. A beautiful gift this Advent and Christmas. Available in print and ebook.

Order the book


A Christmas Eve Gift:
Gary’s gorgeous song “For To Us a Child Will Be Born,” inspired in part by Isaiah 9.2-7, beautifully captures the mystery of the night that draws us across the threshold into Christmas. To listen, simply click the Play button on the audio player below. (For my email subscribers: if the audio player doesn’t appear in your email, click adventdoor.com to visit the blog and see the audio player.) The song is from Gary’s CD Songmaker’s Christmas.

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Those Who Walked in Darkness,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Advent special! During this season, subscribe to Jan Richardson Images and receive unlimited digital downloads for only $125 per year (regularly $165). Click Subscribe to sign up.

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day: The Advent Spiral

December 19, 2010

Now on our fourth turn through Advent, we have accumulated a bit of a library of images and reflections for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we anticipate the coming celebrations, here are some blogs from Christmas past. Click on the image or title to page your way through them.

Reflections and images for Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve: Longing for Light

Door 24: The Secret Room

Where the Foreign Meets the Familiar

Reflections and images for Christmas Day:

Christmas Day: Witness of that Light

Tangled Up in You

Door 25: The Book of Beginnings

P.S. A Little Holiday Housekeeping: For those just tuning in: through Christmas, we’re offering a discount on annual subscriptions at Jan Richardson Images, where my artwork is available for use in worship, education, and contemplation. A subscription provides access to all the images for a year’s time. Click subscribe for info. Also, there’s still a wee bit of time to order my new book for Christmas. (Or perhaps Epiphany!) Visit Sanctuary of Women to order. Inscribed copies are available by request.

Advent 3: The Advent Spiral

December 5, 2010

With having the launch celebration for my new book a couple of nights ago, and all the preparations that went into that splendid evening, I have not quite finished my first post for Advent 3 (December 12). I’m aiming to publish it tomorrow. In the meantime, though, I would be pleased for you to spiral back around and visit my earlier images and reflections on the readings for the coming Sunday, from my first year of doing The Advent Door, three years ago. You can click on the images or the post titles to find your way.

Now that the book celebration is past, and I’m home for a few weeks, I look forward to posting more frequently here. Not daily, as I did during that first year at The Advent Door! But I invite you to swing back by in the near future to take a breath and savor a few quiet moments in this season that is often so frantic. Know that I’m holding you in prayer in these Advent days.

Blessings to you.

Isaiah 35:1-10: Door 10: Hitting the Highway

Luke 1:47-55 (alternate reading/United Methodist reading): Door 11: In Which We Get to Sing

Matthew 11:2-11: Door 16: The News in Prison

James 5:7-10: Door 15: Another Name for Patience

Christmas Day: Witness of that Light

December 23, 2009


Witness of that Light © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Christmas Day, Years ABC: John 1.1-14

On Christmas Eve during my first year as a pastor (at a church just up the road from Disney World), I stepped into my office during a quick break between the six worship services we were having that evening. I spotted a gift that my senior pastor, Bill Barnes, had left for me. Opening it, I discovered an illuminated edition of The Book of Common Prayer. Containing an early version of the BCP, the volume includes nearly two hundred miniatures taken from a variety of illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The book enchanted me and remains one of the coolest gifts I have ever received.

I picked the book up tonight and was enchanted all over again, partly for the memories it evoked, partly for the doorways of history and imagination it opened to me as an artist, and partly for the book itself, its intricate and vivid pages shimmering (even in reproduced form) with gold. It’s the presence of gold that qualifies a manuscript as “illuminated,” and many medieval book artists drenched their pages with this precious metal. Artists, and their patrons who commissioned these books, were drawn to gold both because of its lavish quality and also because it signified the presence of the God who not only gives us light but who also came into this world as light.

Light shimmers through the gospel reading that the lectionary gives us for Christmas Day: the stunning prologue to the gospel of John. Tonight I read the version contained in my luminous Book of Common Prayer—the King James Version, of course. In this passage that I love and have read approximately a zillion times, what struck me tonight, in this version, were these words:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all…through him might believe. He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light.

Most times when I read this passage, I’m focused on John the Evangelist’s powerful description of how Christ came as the Word: the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Word that came as life and light. As a woman with a passion for the Word, and words, and the bonds between them, I never cease to be stunned by the power of this poetic passage and what—and how—it tells us of the One who entwined himself with us as life and flesh and light. Yet tonight, amidst the stunning words about the Word, my eye keeps going back to John—the one whom we call the Baptist, the one who prepared the way—and how, as the King James Version puts it, he came “to bear witness of that light.”

We need darkness, and I often find myself uncomfortable with the ways that we in the Christian tradition perpetuate stereotypes that hold that all that is good is light and bright and white, and all that is evil is dark and black. I’ll say it again: we need darkness. The seed in the ground, the child in the womb, the body and soul in rest and in dreaming: we must have times of shelter from the light in order to grow in the ways God calls us to grow. I love that verse in Isaiah where God says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name” (Isaiah 45.3).

And yet, even as it calls us to honor the gifts of the dark, this season bids us recognize our ancient longing for light, and to celebrate the One who came to us as light. Amidst the shadows—some necessary, some horrendous—God beckons us to look deeper, to look more closely, that we may find the presence of the Christ who shimmers there. And, finding that presence, to bear witness.

How do we, in our own lives, do what John the Baptist was called to do in and with his life? How do we bear witness of that light?

As we cross the threshold into Christmas, here at the end of our Advent pilgrimage, this is a question I’ll be carrying with me, tucked in the traveling bag where all my mysteries go. In the days, weeks, months to come, how will I bear witness to, point toward, open myself to, embody the God who came as life and as light? Are there any shadows that I’ve grown too comfortable with, any places of darkness that God might be wanting to stir around in and shed some light on? Are there any pockets of ignorance or indifference within me that God might be desiring to illuminate? Is there some dark corner of my soul that I’ve been content to leave in shadow, in mystery, where God might be inviting me to kindle even a small flame and wait in stillness to see what reveals itself?

How about you? What question will you carry on the path ahead? What light beckons you as we spiral into the coming season?

Wherever your path takes you, may this Christmas be for you and yours a day of celebration, a day of hope, a day of peace. A luminous day. I am grateful to you for sharing this Advent journey, and I welcome you to join me at The Painted Prayerbook, where I’ll soon return to explore some words and images in the year to come.

May Christ our Light go with you in every season. Merry Christmas!

CHRISTMAS BONUS: To hear a wondrous song from my singer/songwriter sweetheart, inspired by the prologue to John’s gospel, click this link: Garrison Doles-“From the Beginning” (from Garrison’s CD House of Prayer).

[For previous reflections on this passage, please see Tangled Up in You and Door 25: The Book of Beginnings.]

[To use the “Witness of that Light” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Advent 3: As on a Day of Festival

December 11, 2009


As on a Day of Festival © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Zephaniah 3.14-20
Canticle: Isaiah 12.2-6
Reading from the Epistles: Philippians 4.4-7

From time to time, someone will look at a piece of my art and ask, “So what does it mean?” As if meaning were the main thing. Or as if it could mean only one thing.

I cannot tell you what this one means. I can tell you that as I worked on it in the night, the lamps on either side of my drafting table the only illumination in my apartment, I was thinking of these words, these Advent words, from the prophets and from Paul. I was thinking of with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation and of the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding. I was thinking about these words rejoice and exult and sing; these words proclaim and praise.

I was thinking how Paul and the prophets do not tell us to be happy; they do not talk in terms of feelings; they do not talk about mood or about dispositions that are dependent on circumstances. I was thinking about how they call us to a rejoicing that is not an emotion but an action, a choice. I was thinking about all those verbs they use: those words that impel us to move and to choose and to resist stagnating in one place.

Which of course led me to thinking about Get Fuzzy, my favorite comic strip, where Bucky, the world’s most acerbic feline, says, “Anything can be a word if you just verbify it.”

I was thinking how when our joy is at an ebb, we need to start verbifying ourselves.

I can tell you I was thinking about how frequently we make the mistake of assuming that rejoicing depends on feeling happy, and about those for whom happiness is a stretch in this season. I was thinking of Marge Piercy’s poem “For Strong Women,” and the line where she writes, “Strength is not in her, but she/enacts it as wind fills a sail.” I was thinking of how joy is sometimes like this: not something we summon from inside ourselves but something that visits us. Calls to us. Asks us to open, to unfurl ourselves as it approaches. Like Mary in the presence of the angel, her yes poised to fall from her lips.

And I can tell you that on the scrap of  paper I had placed beneath the collage as I pieced it together, I penciled these words between the streaks of glue left behind:

Call it
the waters of salvation
or the garlands of gladness.

Call it
the grave-clothes
falling away
or call it the loosing
of the chains.

Call it
what binds us together:
fierce but
fragile but
fierce.

Call it
he will rejoice over you
with gladness
;
call it
he will renew you
in his love
;
call it
he will exult over you
with loud singing
as on a day
of festival
.

Call it
the thin, thin place
where the veil
gives way.

Or call it this:
the path we make
when we go deep
and deeper still
into the dark
and look behind to see
the way has been lit
by our rejoicing.

In these Advent days, may you find a path of celebration. Blessings.

[To use the “As on a Day of Festival” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Advent 2: The Mystery of Approach

December 2, 2009


Preparing the Way © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 2, Year C: Luke 3.1-6

In his book Anam Cara, John O’Donohue has a section called “The Mystery of Approach,” in which he writes,

For years I have had an idea for a short story about a world where you would approach only one person in the course of your life. Naturally, one would have to subtract biological considerations from this assumption in order to draw this imaginary world. You would have to practice years of silence before the mystery of presence in the Other, then you could begin to approach.

I’m taken with O’Donohue’s notion that to approach another person is an act of reverence that requires preparation. Most of us cross paths with so many people in the course of our life that we often forget that to encounter someone, to truly meet another, is a sacred act. Given how very many of us there are on this planet, and how frequently we allow the image of God in us to become obscured, it’s easy to overlook the way in which coming into the presence of another—a being who is created in the likeness of God—is a sacrament and a wonder.

This week, John the Baptist, along with his predecessor Isaiah, has been calling me to remember what it means to prepare to encounter another: in this case, of course, to come into the presence of one who is not just created in the image of God but who is God. In describing what the Baptist has come to do, Luke evokes the potent words of Isaiah, words that are full of an ancient hope for one who will come to restore and redeem:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

One can imagine that John the Baptist, this locusts-and-wild-honey-eating, camel’s-hair-wearing prophet, must have spent his own time of preparation in the wilderness before he began to call people to prepare for the one who was coming. It was only by making himself ready—by straightening the paths within himself and smoothing out all that was rough in his interior landscape—that John was able to do the work that God had called him to do. And so we, too, are called in this season: to attend to and prepare our inner terrain so that we may welcome Christ in our lives and in our world.

But I have to tell you: this vision of straight paths, filled valleys, and mountains and hills leveled out—it rather gives me the willies. What Isaiah describes, and what John the Baptist is testifying to and working for, is a world that has undergone an apocalyptic leveling out. What will be left, it seems, is a landscape marked by little but its even, unrelenting flatness.

I wonder at that, because I think that part of what God loves about us is the stuff that makes us complicated and complex—the things that give texture to our terrain. By and large, we humans are not simple, are not smooth going, do not make things easy. I have a hunch that God takes a shine to us because of this: God likes a good challenge. And so the prospect of a landscape that is uncomplicated, that is flat, that does not have any meandering paths that take me to places I had never imagined going yet where I find God nonetheless: this strikes me less as a heavenly vision than a vision of a place far removed from paradise.

And yet. And yet. As one who not infrequently is prone to making my life more complicated than it needs to be, I find myself pondering Isaiah’s words, and pondering them again. In this season of preparation, Isaiah and John challenge me to consider: amidst the complexities and complications of my life, is there something I need to do to make it easier for Christ to enter my terrain and to be known in this world? Is there some path through my soul that I need to straighten, to smooth? Is there some mountainous obstacle that needs to be brought down—not to flatten my soul into a stultifying sameness, but so that Christ may meet less resistance within me?

It may be tempting to think that we should prepare ourselves more strenuously to encounter and welcome Christ than to meet anyone else. This season, however, beckons us to remember that the incarnation takes place anew each day, and that Christ comes in the form of those whom we meet on our path. How are we preparing ourselves to encounter Christ in them? How do we ready ourselves for this sacrament, this mystery, this miracle? Amid the graced and necessary complexities involved in being who God has created and called us to be, how do we make a space for the One who desires to approach and meet us in this and every season?

Blessings and peace to you on your path of preparation.

[For related reflections on this passage, visit these posts at The Advent Door: The Pilgrim’s CoatWhere I’m From, A Way in the Wilderness, and Door 9: Making Way.]

[To use the “Preparing the Way” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Christmas Eve: Longing for Light

December 24, 2008

advent-door-blog-2008-cmas
Who Walked in Darkness © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9.2-7

Some years ago, I wrote a prayer for one of my books in which I asked that in those times when we are so focused on providing hospitality to others that we neglect ourselves, God would help us to tend the pilgrim in our own souls “who longs for a welcoming fire and for shelter in the dark.” While the book was in production, I received a note from one of the folks who was working on it, asking me to change that line, as the publishing house avoided the use of language suggesting that darkness was bad.

I understood the concern, being familiar with the ways our culture has long equated lightness and whiteness with goodness, and darkness and blackness with evil. That’s part of what the book was addressing in the first place. With the title Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas, the book was something of a hymn to the deity who dwells in darkness as well as in daylight, the God who challenges us to search and know with all our senses and not just with our eyes, the Holy One who says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places” (Isaiah 45.3).

I told the person at the publishing house that, committed though I am to finding the presence of God in the dark, I think it’s fair to want a little light sometimes, and to desire a place of shelter when shadows have fallen across the path.

I think it’s fair to want a LOT of light from time to time. I mean, it’s crazy, what’s asked of us: to live in a world, a cosmos, in which we know so little; to have faith that there is meaning and purpose and a sacred pattern in the chaos; to move forward without being able to see what’s ahead; to follow a God who lives in layers of mystery. It’s nuts for God to ask us to reach beyond our natural instinct toward self-absorption and attend to those around us, to extend hospitality to those who are strangers, to organize ourselves into functioning communities when history has shown us how difficult this is to sustain. How audacious, how wild of God to think we can even begin to do any of this.

And I think God knows this, too, knows how impossible it sometimes seems to live in this world that is strange and difficult as well as wondrous. And so God works to shine some light our way. In this season we celebrate God’s bright impulse in a big way, and with song and story and prayer and ritual we rejoice at the ways that God has illuminated our world. The passage from Isaiah that we read on Christmas Eve gives perhaps the most gorgeous words for what we celebrate on this day:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them has light shined….
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor…
Prince of Peace.

The light that Isaiah speaks about: the light that breaks the yoke, the bar, and the rod of the oppressor; the light that consumes the trappings of war; the light that comes in the form of a child of peace: yes, God, more of this light, please.

It’s important to note that the texts that originated with our Jewish forebears, the texts that Christians usually call the Old Testament, can stand on their own. They do not take on meaning for the people of Christ solely by our reading and interpreting them with our Christian eyes. What Isaiah offers here are powerful words for those in darkness in any time, in any place.

At the same time it’s right that we in the Christian tradition find particular hope, solace, and meaning in these words on this day. The vivid, brilliant imagery of Isaiah undergirds and resonates with and gives poetic expression to the images and stories that we receive from the other texts that we hear this week. He prepares us to hear the astonishing story of what has come in the person of Christ. Isaiah reminds us that the longing for light is an ancient human longing. He assures us that in the presence of the darkness of this world—be it friendly darkness or foul—God is present, working to help us know God more clearly and to live together with deeper compassion, justice, and peace.

May the light that we celebrate this Christmas help us to see, to widen our vision to all the ways that God shows up in darkness and in the day. When you have need of it, may you find a welcoming fire and shelter in the shadows, and may we offer these in turn. Blessings to you on this Christmas Eve and all the days—and nights—to come.

[To use this image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Home for the Holidays

December 19, 2008


A Home for God © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 4: Luke 1.26-38

Thanks so much for the blessings and good wishes and virtual treats I’ve received while being out of commission this week. They continue to be good medicine for body and soul. Cootie Girl is on the mend and slowly easing back into the swing of things. I have to say that while I would like to have been the determiner of my down time (and I really had been planning to have some anyway this week, honest), getting sick in the thick of Advent is not without its benefits.

Advent shares common ground with Lent in that, as a season of preparation, it invites us to a time of reflection and to let go of what insulates us from God. Caught up as many of us tend to be in the intensities of the pre-Christmas pace, doing that reflective work sometimes gets lost along the way. When feeling my worst this week I didn’t feel much like reflecting (I didn’t feel much like doing anything at all), and I don’t want to put too much of a philosophical or theological shine on feeling crummy, but it was instructive to be confronted with such an interruption of my plans, and to look through some doors that opened in a way I hadn’t orchestrated.

At my ickiest I didn’t even feel like reading, which for me is really saying something, but later in the week I did spend some time with a few of my art books. I figured that even if I was taking a break from producing I could at least feed my eyes and fill my creative well a bit. One of the books I pulled off the shelf was a delicious tome of a book titled Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), published to accompany a major exhibition of the same name that was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004. As with the exhibition, the book gathers a massive and stunning collection of artful artifacts from the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was Constantinople, and presents them by categories including sculpture, liturgical implements, icons, illuminated manuscripts, and liturgical textiles.

Yum.

As I paged through the lavish illustrations, it occurred to me that each medium to which these medieval artists gave themselves was their way of making a home for God. The book, the bowl, the icon; the triptych opening to reveal holy faces worn by centuries of lips pressed in reverence; chalice and paten, reliquary and sanctuary: each form offered an invitation to the sacred, beckoning it to draw close and be perceived, touched, kissed, met. These artists knew that we cannot capture or contain God within any medium. Their creations reveal instead their desire to offer, amid the strangeness of being in this world, a habitation for the God who calls us here.

It’s this kind of desire that we encounter in this week’s reading from Luke 1.26-38. The story of the annunciation to Mary tells us of how, with her own body, Mary makes a home for God. The medium of her own flesh becomes a habitation for the holy. It’s not simply her willingness to become pregnant and give birth to Jesus, however, that makes Mary someone who provides a dwelling for God. When Gabriel greets her, he says to her, “The Lord is with you.” Already God has found a home with her.

In response to Mary’s perplexed query about how it can be that she will bear a child, Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” His words provide a dramatic resonance with last week’s reading from Isaiah, in which the prophet proclaims, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…” By her assent, her not merely willing but audacious yes, Mary sets in motion these very actions and others that Isaiah lists. Liberty, release, healing, an end to oppression: these are the wonders that Mary goes on to sing about in the Magnificat that we hear this week: the actions of a God who brings restoration and redemption to a world that has become deeply disordered.

Mary’s yes to Gabriel, her assent to God, her willingness to make a home for the divine within her own self: these all give the lie to a history that has too often depicted her as meek and mild. Her response to God, and the work that she takes up, are the actions of a prophet, in the ancient Hebrew sense of it: one who recognizes the presence of God in the world, who points it out to others, who does not give up hope that the people will come to know God. Meekness and mildness are not enough to sustain Mary in the prophetic work God has called her to do.

Her actions are not only prophetic, but priestly as well. I remember what a jolt I received one day in seminary as I sat among the stacks in the theology library, reading an article I had just found titled “Mary and the Eucharist: an oriental perspective.” The author, Orthodox theologian Sebastian Brock, limns the links between the Mother of God and the sacrament of Eucharist. He notes, for instance, that in the Liturgy of St. James (one of the Eucharistic liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox tradition), the priest prays to God to “send your Spirit so that he may overshadow and make this bread into the life-giving Body, the saving Body, the heavenly Body, the Body which brings salvation to our souls and bodies, the body of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ….”

Overshadow. The word that tells what the Spirit does within Mary, now used to describe what the Spirit does in the sacrament of the table, not only within the bread but also within us. Overshadow, inhabit, dwell: this is how the Spirit works, seeking to make a home among us. One that is not an exclusive residence or a walled shelter, either; we hear, after all, Paul’s words to the Romans this week, in which he writes of “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed” (from Romans 16.25-27). It is a spacious home that, like Mary, we are challenged to offer: a dwelling that reveals the presence of God rather than hiding it away.

So how is God seeking to make a home in you in this season? What audacious yes might God be inviting you to offer? How does making a home for the sacred help you find a place for yourself in this world? What sustains you in this prophetic, priestly work?

In this and every season, may we, like Mary, be a home for the God who desires to dwell with us. Blessings.

[For another reflection on the Annunciation, scroll down or click on Getting the Message.]

[To use the “A Home for God” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Getting the Message

December 16, 2008


Getting the Message © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 4: Luke 1.26-38

One of the things that intrigues me about medieval artwork is the way that it has its own stories to tell. In depicting biblical scenes (which provided the material for so much artwork in the Middle Ages), medieval artists sometimes incorporated visual stories that we don’t find in the Bible. Though without an actual scriptural basis, the symbolic text the medieval artists gave us can engage the imagination, raise questions, and illuminate a given story beyond what the written text provides. It works something like an artful midrash that invites us to imagine the worlds between the words.

Here’s my favorite example. In many medieval (and Renaissance) depictions of the Annunciation—that moment when the archangel Gabriel comes to Mary to ask her to become the mother of Jesus—Mary is depicted reading. (The chronic reader in me loves this.) Usually she’s depicted with a book that indicates that she’s at her prayers when Gabriel shows up. Sometimes, in a wonderful bit of anachronism, it’s a Book of Hours that Mary is reading. (The Book of Hours was a popular prayerbook in the Middle Ages. Often lavishly illustrated, Books of Hours always included a section of prayers in honor of Mary, with artwork that illustrates scenes from her life…including the Annunciation, in which the artists depict her reading…a Book of Hours…) Other times, her book is open to Isaiah, specifically to the passage in which the prophet says this to King Ahaz:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)

The Christian tradition came to interpret this passage as a foretelling of the birth of Jesus, God-with-us, to Mary. In depicting her reading this very text, the medieval artists did some intriguing time-twisting, opening an imaginative portal between the sign given to King Ahaz and the miracle given to Mary.

Though the image of Mary reading at the moment of the Annunciation doesn’t appear in the biblical text, I love this artful notion of the reading, praying Mary. It reveals something of the medieval view of Mary, and it offers evidence of a kind of visual lectio divina the artists did as they pondered Mary’s story. In depicting her with a prayerbook or with the sacred text of her tradition, the artists conveyed the compelling idea that Mary was already immersed in the word before the Word became immersed in her.

This image of Mary challenges me to ponder what texts—written or otherwise—I’m steeping myself in. What words, what images do I give my attention to: on the page, in conversation, in the course of my daily life? In a culture that inundates and sometimes assaults our eyes and ears with messages in all manner of forms, how do we read in a way that keeps us attuned to the sacred?

Am I, like the medieval Mary, immersing myself in the word in a way that helps me notice when a divine messenger shows up with an outrageous invitation? That’s what the word angel means in the original Greek: one who comes with a message. How do I cultivate an openness to that message, to the Word that longs to find a home in me, in us?

Blessings to you.

[To use the “Getting the Message” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]