Archive for the ‘Gospel of Luke’ Category

Clothed with the Sun

December 18, 2010

Clothed with the Sun © Jan L. Richardson

Soon and very soon, we will contemplate the Gospel reading for Christmas Eve. In this text from Luke, we will read of the journey of Mary and Joseph and of the birth of Jesus in a manger; we will read of shepherds and angels and glory. At the last, we will catch sight of the contemplative Mary. It is the briefest glimpse: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Tucked into the very end of the text, it nearly eludes our notice. Yet more and more I find myself thinking that the heart of this story lies here, in the way that Mary gathers up all the pieces of the story and holds them within herself.

But not yet, not quite; a day or two still before we turn to this tale of glory that gives way to a space of stillness. For now, let us open a different window onto Mary.

In the book of Revelation, in chapter 12, John tells of a vision of a celestial woman who labors to give birth to a child as a dragon waits, intent upon destroying the child. Across the centuries, many interpreters have viewed this as an image of Mary. While the text itself does not confirm this, the story of the sun-garbed woman struggling to give birth certainly resonates with the tale of the mother of Christ. And so, on this Advent night, I offer this image that emerged as I contemplated this passage many years ago, along with this reflection and poem:

Clothed with the Sun

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth. —Revelation 12.1-2

It took three tries to begin to do her justice. In the first rendering, she wore a dress with a golden sun on it and looked very static. I read the story again and realized what is really says: that she was clothed with the sun, not with a sunny dress. So the second try had her swathed in the sun itself, with rays etched in gold wrapped around her body.

When I looked at the piece months later, I realized that the gold on the bottom layers of paper had soaked through the upper pieces. It looked unfixable. No matter; I realized I didn’t like it so much anyway.

When I returned home from a trip to Toronto with some fabulous gold paper from the Japanese paper shop there I realized it was for her and went, literally, back to the drawing board. As this dark-skinned, dark-haired woman began to emerge, I remembered a poem by Joy Harjo. “Early Morning Woman” tells of a woman stretching in the new day’s sun, moving with the strength of the child who grows in her belly. I had used the poem in my first book, in the section about this celestial woman who moves in the agony and hope of birth. Now the early morning woman took shape before me, dazzling in her luminous garb.

I always return to her, to the terror of her birthing and the force of her loving. In this Advent season, this sun-garbed woman, in labor as a dragon waits to devour her child, reminds me that the cave of the heart is not a place of escape. It is a place to wrestle with those personal dragons that emerge only when we slow down, a place to struggle with those parts of ourselves we hesitate to confront and which we sometimes stifle with too much work or too much play or too many possessions or with substances that dull the ache we cannot name. This struggle is integral to preparing for the labor; it is part of the labor itself. Hiding from myself won’t sustain me through the travail, and being merely nice won’t give me strength for the birthing, and my silence won’t protect what I bring forth from that which seeks to destroy it.

Sun Woman Speaks

When it was all over
they asked me for a charm
for banishing dragons.

I said
look them in the eye
and call them by name.
It makes them mad as hell,
but they can’t abide
the knowing
of their name.

[Art, reflection, and poem are from “Advent: The Cave of the Heart” in the book In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season © Jan L. Richardson.]

[To use the “Clothed with the Sun” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Advent 3: The Art of Blessing

December 11, 2010

Image: The Hour of Lauds: Visitation © Jan Richardson

Canticle for Advent 3 (alternate reading): Luke 1.46-55

Two nights ago we gathered for the Wellspring service, the contemplative worship gathering that Gary and I offer each month. On that Advent night, in that quiet and prayer-soaked chapel, our primary text was Luke 1.39-56, in which we find the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and of the song that Mary pours forth when Elizabeth welcomes and blesses her. This song, which we have come to know as the Magnificat, is our canticle for this third Sunday of Advent.

At the service, during our time for conversation (because, at Wellspring, the act of proclamation is not solely the work of one person), we spoke of how Mary’s song—this song of how God turns the world right side up—comes from Elizabeth’s blessing of her: how Elizabeth’s words seem to release the song, set it loose from Mary’s lips and from her very soul. We spoke of the intimacy of this story, how it is in their meeting, kinswoman to kinswoman, that the blessing and the singing take place. We spoke of how blessing takes place in community, how it depends upon community, how it takes being in community to offer and receive the blessings that will enable us to proclaim the song that God has placed within us. We spoke of how sometimes the best way to receive a deeply needed blessing is to offer a blessing ourselves. And we spoke, too, of how there are times when God calls us—challenges us—to simply receive a blessing that is meant for us, without feeling compelled to respond in turn.

This intimate scene, this exchange between these two woman who find themselves in a stunning intersection of heaven and earth, is the stage by which Luke describes how God transforms the world. And it rests, in large measure, upon the act of blessing: one woman laying her hands upon another and speaking words that penetrate whatever anxiety and uncertainty may be present in Mary as she sets into a wild and uncharted terrain.

Later, after the service, the power of Elizabeth’s blessing, and what it unleashed, lingered with me. I picked up John O’Donohue’s book To Bless the Space Between Us and turned once again to his brilliant essay at the end of the book, “To Retrieve the Lost Art of Blessing.” Here he writes,

We never see the script of our lives; nor do we know what is coming toward us, or why our life takes on this particular shape or sequence. A blessing is different from a greeting, a hug, a salute, or an affirmation; it opens a different door in human encounter. One enters into the forecourt of the soul, the source of intimacy and the compass of destiny.

Our longing for the eternal kindles our imagination to bless. Regardless of how we configure the eternal, the human heart continues to dream of a state of wholeness, a place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of life’s journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.

This wholeness is intended not just for the one who receives it;  it is linked with the wholeness of the whole world.

“Blessed is she who believed,” Elizabeth the Blesser cried out.

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” Mary the Blessed sings in response, “and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things . . .”

O’Donohue writes this, too:

Who has the power to bless? This question is not to be answered simply by the description of one’s institutional status or membership. But perhaps there are deeper questions hidden here: What do you bless with? Or where do you bless from? When you bless another, you first gather yourself; you reach below your surface mind and personality, down to the deeper source within you—namely, the soul. Blessing is from soul to soul.

In this Advent season, how will you use the power you have to bless? How might God be calling you to offer a blessing—or to receive one?

From my soul to yours and back again: blessings.

[For previous reflections on the Magnificat, visit Door 11: In Which We Get to Sing and Door 14: Remembering Forward.]

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

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 Eve: Revisiting the Secret Room

December 22, 2009

The Secret Room © Jan L. Richardson

In his book The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau writes that in every sacred journey, there is a secret room, a place along the path that gives us a different perspective on the deep mystery of our journey. In describing this hidden room, Cousineau draws on a story that poet Donald Hall tells of friends who purchased an old house in the country. Cousineau writes,

It was a ‘warren of small rooms,’ and once they settled in and began to furnish their new home they realized that the lay of the house made little sense. ‘Peeling off some wallpaper, they found a door that they pried open to reveal a tiny room, sealed off and hidden, goodness knows why: They found no corpses nor stolen goods.’ For Hall, the mystery of poetry to evoke powerful feelings finds its analogy here, in its ability to be sealed away from explanation, this is the place where ‘the unsayable gathers.’

And so it is on the pilgrim’s path. Everywhere you go, there is a secret room. To discover it, you must knock on walls, as the detective does in mystery houses, and listen for the echo that portends the secret passage. You must pull books off shelves to see if the library shelf swings open to reveal the hidden room.

I’ll say it again: Everywhere has a secret room. You must find your own, in a small chapel, a tiny cafe, a quiet park, the home of a new friend, the pew where the morning light strikes the rose window just so.

As a pilgrim you must find it or you will never understand the hidden reasons why you really left home.

A couple of years ago, I shared these words from Hall and Cousineau as I reflected here at The Advent Door on the gospel lection for Christmas Eve. Then, as now, I find myself struck by a seemingly small detail that Luke tucks in near the end of this passage:

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2.19)

Over the previous nine months, Mary has entertained an archangel, said yes to becoming the mother of the Son of God, made the journey to visit Elizabeth, and lifted up a song of hope that has endured across centuries. She has waited with Elizabeth, made the journey back home, and traveled with her husband Joseph to Bethlehem to be included in the registration ordered by Emperor Augustus. She has labored to give birth to her son, enfolded him in strips of cloth, laid him in a manger, and welcomed those who came to marvel at what had come to pass.

Luke tells us that in response to their amazement, Mary treasures these words in her heart. Luke’s description conjures an image of a woman who, amid the tumult of angels and signs and visitors and miracles, holds all these happenings in a place of stillness. Among the memories of nine months of adventures she never could have imagined, Mary embodies a sense of wonder that is quiet and deep and wise.

Mary has found what Hall and Cousineau describe: she has found the place where the unsayable gathers. She has found the secret room.

As we approach Christmas Eve and the end of our Advent journey, it seems a fitting time to pause for a moment and look back on the path we’ve traveled these past few weeks. And I want to ask now, as I asked a couple of years ago: Have you found a secret room for yourself in these Advent days? In your pilgrimage through this season, have you found a space, a moment, a place of wonder or wisdom or sheer respite or deep delight, that helped you discover the purpose of this pilgrimage?

This season has been intense for me, as always: it has been full, it has passed quickly, and I always wish I could make more time to savor and to linger with these days. Yet on this Advent afternoon, as the sky turns toward dusk and I fix myself another cup of tea on what is, for us in Florida, a wonderfully chilly day, I find myself revisiting a few secret rooms that opened to me along this path. I think of a visit with my spiritual director on a weary afternoon a couple of weeks ago, and receiving from her a golden bag of chocolate truffles that she brought back with her from France—that we opened and immediately began to eat. I left that visit lighter in spirit—and not solely because of the truffles (though they were excellent medicine). I think of an afternoon spent with three women whom I love and whom I had not seen in a long time, and how they brought an amazing lunch and filled my home with their conversation and their spirits. I think of a celebration with friends on the Winter Solstice, and of how we gathered outside around fires beneath a dark sky and spoke of the gifts and challenges of darkness and light.

On this Advent afternoon, I am treasuring these things in my heart. (And still savoring the magic bag of truffles.)

Perhaps this will become our tradition here at The Advent Door—as Christmas Eve approaches, to invite the question again: Where have we found a secret room on this pilgrimage toward Christmas? Where and how do we join with Mary in pondering what has taken place? Amidst the unfolding story—the story of the birth of Christ, the story of our own intertwined lives—what do we treasure in our hearts?

In these remaining moments of Advent, may a secret room yet open itself to you and help you remember why you undertook this journey in the first place. Blessings and peace to you.

[For another reflection on this passage, see Where the Foreign Meets the Familiar. For last year’s reflection on Isaiah 9.2-7, the lection from the Hebrew Scriptures for Christmas Eve, please see Longing for Light.]

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

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A Little Advent Housekeeping

December 15, 2009

The Hour of Lauds: Visitation © Jan L. Richardson

We’re more than halfway along the Advent path now; how’s your season unfolding? This is a good chance to catch our collective breath for a moment. As we take a pause, I have a few various and sundry things rattling around my brain that I want to pass along to you here at The Advent Door.

THE GOOD WORD: This is a great week in the Advent lectionary, with two of my favorite passages appearing among this Sunday’s readings: Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-45), and the song that pours forth from that meeting: the Magnificat (Luke 1.47-55). My reflection on the Visitation is the next post down; for an earlier reflection on the Magnificat, I invite you to visit Mary, Magnifier.

FEAST DAY: While Mary is on our mind: somehow I got it in my head this season that the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, beloved by many as the patroness of the Americas, was on Dec. 15; it was actually on the 12th. She’s worth celebrating for more than a day, so, happy extended feast day to you! Here’s a reflection I wrote previously on the feast: The Day of the Lady.

AN ARTFUL YEAR: During Advent I’m offering a festive discount at my website Jan Richardson Images, where high-resolution files of my artwork are available for use in worship, education, and other settings. Through Christmas, an annual subscription (which gives you unlimited downloads) is 100 smackeroos (normally $165). Visit subscribe to check it out.

PRINTS PRINTS PRINTS: All the images at Jan Richardson Images, including the images from The Advent Door and my other blog, The Painted Prayerbook, are now available as art prints (a great gift for yourself and others!). Just go to any image that you’d like and scroll down to “Prints & Products” to order.

THANKS THANKS THANKS: Thank you so much to everyone who has supported The Advent Door by linking to it from a blog or website or in print, including these cool sites that I recommend: (a thoughtful site that offers “Balanced Views of Religion and Spirituality”; they’re reprinting my Advent reflections at their Mainline Protestant Portal) and Image & Spirit, a blog of the ECVA (Episcopal Church & the Visual Arts, though they’re hospitable to all!), which is offering lovely images and words each day of Advent. And thanks of course to Jenee Woodard, who provides an astounding ministry through The Text this Week, and to my friends at RevGalBlogPals; you rock!

And thanks to YOU for traveling this Advent road with me. I am praying for you as we make this journey and am grateful beyond measure for your company. Blessings!

Advent 4: The Sanctuary They Make in Meeting

December 13, 2009

The Sanctuary Between Us
© Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 4, Year C: Luke 1.39-45

Here’s one way that I imagine it: having received her courageous yes, Gabriel turns and takes his angelic leave of Mary. A shimmering rush of wind, and he is gone. The light returns to normal, the objects in the room resume their familiar shapes. And Mary—young Mary, unmarried Mary, pregnant Mary—looks around. Finds herself quite alone. Places her head in her two hands and thinks, “It seemed like a good idea at the time…”

Luke tells us that after Gabriel’s departure, Mary goes “with haste” to visit Elizabeth. She knows, for Gabriel has told her, that her kinswoman is experiencing an unusual pregnancy of her own. Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home, enters, and a scene unfolds that is among my favorites in all of scripture. Elizabeth no more than hears Mary’s words of greeting, and she knows what has happened. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she cries out,

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

I love how artists have depicted this scene, known as the Visitation, for hundreds of years: Elizabeth reaches out to Mary, places her hands on Mary’s belly, speaks her words of welcome and blessing. Mary reaches out in turn, her hands on Elizabeth’s arms or on her kinswoman’s belly that is swollen with the miracle child she has carried for six months now: the child, Elizabeth says, that leaps for joy in her womb. It is a dramatic scene, intense with the intimacy of the reaching out of these two women toward one another, holding on to one another for dear life.

Jane Schaberg writes of how Elizabeth, in this moment, appears as a prophet, though that title is not given to her. Filled, as Luke tells us, with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognizes the One whom Mary carries, much as Anna the prophet will do in the temple in a few months’ time. Yet Elizabeth is not only a prophet here; she engages also in a priestly act as she speaks her words of blessing and places her hands upon the vessel that contains the Christ.

I have often pondered this scene in terms of the way in which Elizabeth extends her hospitality to Mary, how her welcome is wondrous not merely for its complete absence of judgment of the pregnant, unmarried Mary but especially for her deep delight in what her cousin has done. Yet what strikes me, too, as this season spirals me around this passage once again, is not only how Mary found a refuge in Elizabeth, but also how Elizabeth must have found something of a refuge in her young cousin. There are few things more powerful than finding ourselves in a situation beyond our imagining, and encountering someone who knows, from the inside of it, something of what it is to be in that place. Someone who can meet us there.

Pregnant in strange and wondrous circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth each find perhaps the only other person who could possibly understand what’s happening to them. With one another, they find not just understanding (though that would be gift enough), not just hospitality (though that would be mercy enough); in one another, they find a shelter; in their meeting, they make a sanctuary.

In moments, Mary will raise her voice in an ancient song. Singing, after all, is part of what a sanctuary is for. In the relief and release she finds in Elizabeth’s welcome, Mary is freed to let loose with her words about the Word that is within her, and to pour forth her poetic proclamation of what God has wrought in her and in the world.

Ah, but that’s another reflection for another day. Soon, because it’s this song, the Magnificat, that the lectionary gives us for next Sunday’s canticle.

For now, we linger in the sanctuary, this sacred space that Mary and Elizabeth have made with their meeting, their embrace, their welcome, their knowing. And here, in this holy place, I am come to ask you: where are you finding sanctuary in this season? Are you Mary, needing to make a journey—literal or otherwise—to find the refuge you need? Are you Elizabeth, extending hospitality to another and finding there a shelter you needed for yourself? Are you longing for a sacred space that hasn’t yet appeared? What might it take to begin to find it, to fashion it? Who can help?

May this be for you a day of blessings given, blessings received, and sanctuary along the way.

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

[The Jane Schaberg reference is from her commentary on Luke in The Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992).]

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Advent 3: Terrors and Wonders

December 7, 2009

The Final Fire Is Love © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 3, Year C: Luke 3.7-18

Some years before I met him, my sweetheart, Garrison Doles, starred in a horror film. Shot here in Central Florida, Jack-O is a real classic of the drive-in, B-movie genre, complete with a low budget, no rehearsals, and scenes shot in one take. The movie featured a jack-o-lantern-headed demon disturbed from his grave (by unwitting teenagers, as ever) who then (after dispatching the teenagers) seeks his revenge upon the descendants of the man who had killed him. The movie also featured John Carradine, the famed actor who in his later years became a mainstay in horror films. Through the miracle of technology, the fact that he’d been dead for nearly a decade didn’t diminish his performance.

I’m not a big fan of the horror genre, but of course I had to see this one. I’m happy to report that my sweetheart saves the day, the demon is vanquished, and the townspeople return to their normal lives, freed from the specter of a scythe-wielding, pumpkin-headed fiend.

I find myself curious about what it is that draws people into scenarios designed to scare them. For some folks, there’s clearly something compelling about entering a space in which the darker realities of life are so intensely magnified yet also reduced to the manageable size of a movie screen. And I imagine that’s one aspect of the appeal: that amid the known terrors of the world, a horror film offers us an opportunity to have some control over how we encounter our fears.

Fascination with fear isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. In the Middle Ages, some of the most vivid and enduring works of art are those depicting hell and its torments. The artists’ renderings of the underworld—as, for instance, in this painting of a hell-mouth in the 15th-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves or in the works of Hieronymous Bosch—tend to be far more visually interesting and gripping than their depictions of heaven.

Horror movies weren’t the first thing that came to mind as I read the gospel lection for this week. Yet I found myself thinking about them as I wrestled with the text, which is one of the more challenging ones that Advent gives to us. On the one hand, I am quite taken by John the Baptist, this man who so devotes his life to preparing the way for Christ, his own cousin. John has many opportunities to claim status and power for himself—as in this very text, when people are wondering who he is and are prepared to believe he is the Messiah. It seems, however, that any pretensions or yearning for power John may have ever had have been worn away by his life of prayer in the wilderness. The baptizer studiously resists taking on any power or identity that does not belong to him.

Meanwhile, on my other hand, I am uneasy with this man who calls his listeners a brood of vipers, and I wonder about this crowd that is so willing to listen to a preacher who speaks to them in this way. Beyond the matter of John’s name-calling, I find myself wondering: what draws them to this wild-eyed prophet who speaks—probably yells—such fearsome visions of fire and brimstone, axes and roots, winnowing forks and threshing floors?

It’s tempting to think that at least some of those among the crowds have sought out John for the spectacle of it: that the same kind of thing that draws 21st-century people to terrifying visions on the silver screen drew crowds into the wilderness for the 1st century’s version of graphic, high-def, full-throttle, give-you-the-willies cataclysmic fare. It is perhaps tempting, too, to think that when the crowd asks, “What should we do?” it sounds less like an authentic question and more like the helpless, hand-wringing query of a character in one of those horror films—and you know there’s no real point in their asking what they should do, because no matter what you holler at the screen, they’re going to open that door, or go into those woods, or accept that ride from a stranger.

The drama, the intensity, the sensation and sensationalism of John the Baptist’s words and their power to stir the crowd: this is compelling and disturbing stuff. Ultimately, however, what John the Baptist gives to his hearers goes far beyond sensationalism. Wherever their question comes from, whatever has impelled them to ask what they should do, John gives them an answer that, if they heed it, if they take it on as their own, will change them utterly.

I’m intrigued by how specific John is with his responses. He does not give his questioners a “one size fits all” solution, as do so many preachers who flavor their sermons with fire. Those who have clothing and food need to share them with those who don’t, John says. When the tax collectors ask what they should do, he tells them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” When soldiers ask him, John tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” To each group, to each condition presented him, John provides counsel tailored distinctly to who they are.

Forget fire, forget winnowing forks, forget threshing floors: amid our daily lives, is there anything more unsettling than receiving a clear word about what it is that we’re meant to do in this world? Is there anything that risks taking us deeper into our insecurities, into our fears, into the dark unknown than when someone who sees and recognizes and knows us, then challenges us to be the person whom God has created and called us to be? And is there anything more full of wonder and hope?

I think of Audre Lorde, who, in a conversation with her fellow poet Adrienne Rich, said, “Once you live any piece of your vision it opens you to a constant onslaught. Of necessities, of horrors, but of wonders too, of possibilities.”

This, finally, is what John the Baptist, this preparer of the way, is offering to his hearers: wonders. Possibilities. The invitation to be initiated into a relationship with God’s own incarnate self. The fire, the winnowing fork, the threshing floor: these are important, but they are not John’s primary point. As ever, John in his fierce fashion is pointing to—making the way for—the One who comes. And this One comes not for the purpose of terrifying us but of loving us.

Terror may get our attention. It’s one way of telling a story. In the most adept hands, it can be a compelling form in which to illuminate the complexities involved in the struggle of good against evil. Yet terror alone—fear of hellfire and damnation—is not enough to sustain a lasting relationship with Christ. Horror, by itself, is not the path to lead us into heaven. Only love—the truest fire—can do this.

In this season, we remember and celebrate this fierce and fiery love: the love that created us; the love that garbed itself in our own flesh and came among us; the love that beckons us to respond by discerning and doing what it is that God formed and fashioned us, in all our particularity, to do; the love that we will one day see and know in its completeness.

So what should we do, then? How do you carry this question—this question the crowd asked of John—in this season? How do you discern God’s longing for your life? To whom do you listen as you seek an answer to this question?

May the presence of love attend your Advent days.

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

[The Audre Lorde quote is from her book Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984).]

Advent 2: A Song that Means Blessed

December 5, 2009

Benedictus © Jan L. Richardson

Canticle, Advent 2, Year C: Luke 1.68-79

“Burning/all night long/Burning/at the gates of dawn
Singing/near and far/Singing/to raise the morning star.”
–Bruce Cockburn

This Sunday, instead of a passage from the psalms, the Advent lectionary gives us a canticle—one of those those songs that trace a melodic, poetic, and oftentimes prophetic line through both testaments of the Bible. Reading the lines of what has become known as the Canticle of Zechariah, I cannot help but hear voices, and melody. I’m not having an auditory hallucination; the sounds are lodged in my memory, imprinted by years of singing these words on the occasions when I have gathered with my sisters and brothers of Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery.

For a millennium and a half, this passage from Luke has been part of the Liturgy of the Hours, the monastic round of prayer that stretches from before dawn throughout the day and evening and into the dark again. Specifically, this text is chanted at the hour of Lauds, one of the early morning offices of prayer. It is known as the Benedictus: in Latin, this means blessed.

Blessed is the first word of the song that Zechariah sings. It is the first word we hear from his lips after the silence that the archangel Gabriel imposed on him when he dared to be incredulous at the news that his wife—who, as Zechariah himself described it, was “getting on in years”—was pregnant with the child whom we would come to know as John the Baptist, the one who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1.17). Like Mary’s song that precedes it, Zechariah’s canticle is a potent song about what God has accomplished. It is a song, too, of what God will yet do in and through the life of this child—this baby eight days old—to whom Zechariah sings.

After Zechariah has blessed and praised God for some verses, he turns his focus on his child beginning in verse 76: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” One can imagine this father gathering his son into his arms as he raises what surely must have been a bittersweet song. If he knew this much about his son, Zechariah must also have had some understanding, like Mary in the temple after Simeon sang of her son with words about light and glory, that the shadow of a sword hovered close by.

And yet Zechariah sings. Full of wild hope, he sings. Knowing the state of the world, he sings. And he closes his canticle with these words:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

These are my favorite lines of the canticle. When I pray with the St. Brigid’s community on our annual retreat, in that early morning hour when I am still in the realm between sleep and full waking, we chant these lines twice: once at the beginning of the canticle, and again at the end. In my mind, these lines are so bound together with sunrise and meeting the day that I can almost imagine that we—all of us around the world who sing these words at the outset of the day—sing them not in response to the coming of dawn but rather to help ensure it. Not in a literal fashion, of course; the physical rising of the sun does not depend on us (and a good thing, too, as my night owl self rarely is up at that hour). But there is some kind of light that depends on our waiting for it, watching for it, singing it into this world. And when we can’t, God bids us trust that there are others watching and waiting and singing on our behalf and on behalf of the world.

Sitting down to write this reflection, I receive an email from a friend with surprising, horrendous news about her young husband’s health. Yesterday, word of the death of a colleague’s son in an accident. My prayer list for those in peril—medical, financial, emotional—steadily grows. And here in Advent, as those of us in the northern hemisphere journey through the darkest part of the year, we gather these words about ourselves and pray for tender mercy. Not in denial, but, like Zechariah, in the place where wild hope is born.

I read the lines again, and again I hear the voices of my sisters and brothers, praying at dawn. Praying for dawn. Praying the dawn. Voices rising, falling, rising again.

In darkness, we sing.

In the shadow of death, we sing.

Blessing, we sing.


Whom do you hear as you read the lines of this canticle? How do you watch and wait and sing for the light? Who does this for you when you cannot? Who might need you to do it for them? What wild hope do you carry in these days?

Amid the shadows, may we lift our voices in blessing. Peace to you.

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

Advent 1: Practicing the Apocalypse

November 23, 2009

Image: Apocalypse, Again © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 1, Year C: Luke 21.25-36

As I write this, I’m en route from Orlando to New Brunswick, Canada, where I’ll be leading a women’s retreat as we prepare to enter into Advent. It seems fitting that my journey into Advent, a season characterized by waiting, is beginning with flight delays. The delay in Orlando turned out great not only because the extra hour and a half that I spent there provided one of the calmest interludes that I’ve had amidst the extra-full pace of the past few weeks, but also because it reduced the amount of time I’m currently having to spend laid over at an airport that shall remain nameless.

The airport is absolutely crammed with people, and my inner introvert is reeling. I’m usually really good at being able to find a semi-quiet spot in any airport, but this evening I’m doing well just to have found a few square feet of space here on the floor outside a door marked “Bus Hold Room” as I eat my second turkey sandwich of the day. (Not because I have a hankering for turkey; let’s just say that the airport could do with a few more food options at this terminal.) Amid the masses, it feels like I’m in some cosmic way station. I find myself marveling at the endless variety by which humans can take shape, and also overwhelmed by their sheer numbers, close proximity, and noise.

All in all, I’m finding this a good place to think about the apocalypse.

Each year, the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent gives us a version of Jesus’ words about the end of days. This year Luke does the honors. In Luke 21.25-36, we read of celestial signs, cataclysms of nature, and distress upon the earth. Jesus speaks of fear and foreboding that will come upon the people. He tells of how, in the days to come, the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

Along with its parallels in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, this passage forms part of what is sometimes called the “little apocalypse.” It seems a sobering and grim way to welcome us into a season that in the Christian tradition is a time of expectation and celebration and that the wider culture typically depicts as cheery. Yet in greeting us as we cross the threshold into Advent, this apocalypse-in-miniature reminds us that this season bids us not only to remember and celebrate the Christ who has already come to us, but also to anticipate and look toward the fullness of time when he will bring about the redemption of the world.

That’s what Jesus is really getting at in this passage, after all: he is not offering these apocalyptic images in order to scare the pants off people but rather to assure his listeners that the healing of the world is at hand, and that they need to stay awake, stay alert, and learn to read the signs of what is ahead. He is calling them not to crumble or quail when intimations of the end come but instead to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus urges his hearers—and us—toward practices that help them stay grounded and centered in their daily lives so that they won’t be caught unawares in the days to come.

This is the message that the lectionary gives us each year as we enter into Advent. Again and again, we are called to circle back around the apocalypse, to revisit its landscape, to take in its terrain. With its annual return, and its repetitive challenge to us, this passage puts me in mind of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Preparing to save the world yet again, a weary Buffy has this exchange with Giles, her Watcher:

Buffy: How many apocalypses is this now?
Giles: About six, I think.
Buffy: Feels like a hundred.

The season of Advent gives us the apocalypse each year not only so that we might recognize it, should it come, but also—and perhaps especially—that we might enter more mindfully into our present landscape and perceive the signs of how God is working out God’s longing in the world here and now. The root meaning of the word apocalypse, after all, is revelation. And God is, in every time and season, about the work of revealing God’s presence. The one who came to us two millennia ago as Emmanuel, God-with-us, and who spoke of a time when he would come again in fullness, reveals himself even now in our midst, calling us to see all the guises in which he goes about in this world.

Advent reminds us, year in and year out, that although we are to keep a weather eye out for cosmic signs, we must, like the fig tree that Jesus evokes in this passage, be rooted in the life of the earth. And in the rhythm of our daily lives here on earth, Christ bids us to practice the apocalypse. He calls us in each day and moment to do the things that will stir up our courage and keep us grounded in God, not only that we may perceive Christ when he comes, but also that we may recognize him even now. There is a sense, after all, in which we as Christians live the apocalypse on a daily basis. Amid the destruction and devastation that are ever taking place in the world, Christ beckons us to perceive and to participate in the ways that he is already seeking to bring redemption and healing for the whole of creation.

As we enter the season of Advent, and spiral yet again around the landscape that this first Sunday gives to us, how might Christ be inviting you to practice the apocalypse? What are the habits that keep you centered in God, that sharpen your vision, and that help you recognize the presence of Christ in this world? How do you participate in the redemption that God is ever working to bring about within creation? What is it that you long for in these Advent days?

Blessings and peace to you in this coming season.

[For last year’s reflection on Mark’s version of this passage, visit Through the Door.]

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

Home for the Holidays

December 19, 2008

Image: A Home for God © Jan 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.


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, visit Getting the Message.]

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