Archive for the ‘Gospel of Mark’ Category

Advent 1: A Decade at The Advent Door

November 26, 2017

Image: Crossing the Threshold © Jan Richardson

Lectionary readings for Advent 1, Year B:
Isaiah 64.1-9Psalm 80.1-7, 17-191 Corinthians 1.3-9, Mark 13.24-37

This is a season of deep memory, a time when we are called
to hear again the ancient stories of the God
who has journeyed with us from the beginning
and who, in the fullness of time, took on flesh
and came to walk in this world with us.

—from Door 1: Crossing the Threshold
The Advent Door, December 1, 2007

Blessings to you as we begin Advent—again! This marks ten years since we first opened The Advent Door. It has been such a gift to travel toward Christmas with you from year to year.

The first time I opened The Advent Door, in 2007, I wrote a reflection and created a piece of art every day from December 1-25. That season, during which I was living in a small studio apartment, I wore a path between my desk and my drafting table as I spent most of each day writing and making art. It felt like I was making and living inside my own Advent calendar. It was a marvelous, nearly overwhelming experience of immersion in the sacred stories and images that this season gives to us.

I was already well acquainted with the season, having engaged Advent with words and images in books such as Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas. There was something about Advent 2007, though, that sent Advent deep into my bones, forever imprinting me with its message of how God comes to us in the deepest darkness, calling us to live with a hope that not only propels us into the future but, even more than this, deeply permeates the present, no matter what the present looks like for us.

I would need that message more than I ever anticipated when, on the second day of Advent in 2013, my husband died. In the searing loss, I can testify that the message of Advent still holds: with hope, with grace, with love, God takes flesh and meets us when we have become most hopeless, most broken, most lost.

With reflections and artwork spanning the past decade, The Advent Door has become something of a library for this season. As we move through Advent this year, I’ll gather up an armload of gifts from the library for you. Each week I’ll share links to previous reflections for the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, along with reflections from other years that relate to that week’s readings. This won’t be an exhaustive list, and I invite you to wander around The Advent Door on your own as well, to see what you might find.

As it does every year, the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent gives us a version of the “little apocalypse,” in which we hear Jesus’ words about what will happen at the end of time. Though the images can be intense, ensuring that Advent always begins with a bang, the heart of Jesus’ message for this first Advent week is that the healing of creation is at hand. In a time when so much of the world we have known is coming to an end, the gospel reading for this Sunday comes to tell us that somehow, the presence of Christ is in each ending, and that he is at work, drawing near to us as he brings about the redemption of the world.

Stay awake, we hear Jesus say as we cross the threshold into Advent once again. In this season that is both ancient and new, may we stay awake, opening our eyes and hearts to what these weeks will hold as Christ draws near to us. I am grateful to be entering this season with you. Blessings to you as we begin.

Mark 13.24-37

Advent 1: Blessing When the World Is Ending
Advent 1: In Which We Stay Awake
Advent 1: Through the Door

Related Reflections on the Gospel

Advent 1: The Vigil Kept for Us
Advent 1: A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark
Advent 1: Drawing Near
Advent 1: Where Advent Begins
Advent 1: Practicing the Apocalypse

Isaiah 64.1-9

Advent 1: No Between

Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19

Advent 1: When Night Is Your Middle Name

1 Corinthians 1.3-9

Advent 1: I Spy with My Little Eye

P.S. If you’re not already a subscriber to The Advent Door, you can sign up to receive these blog posts in your email inbox during Advent and Christmas. To subscribe, enter your address in the “Subscribe by Email” box near the top of the right sidebar at The Advent Door, and click the “Subscribe” button below your email address.

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

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

Advent 1: Blessing When the World Is Ending

November 23, 2014

End and BeginningImage: End and Beginning  © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 1, Year B: Mark 13.24-37

The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
—Mark 13.24

It used to come as something of a shock to me: that a season commonly perceived to be about joy and peace always begins with the end of the world. Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary gives us a little apocalypse. That’s what it’s actually called: “Little Apocalypse” is the name often given to Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives, where he describes to his listeners the events that will take place as he returns.

This time around, as Advent approaches, Jesus’ apocalyptic talk comes not so much as a shock as it does something that feels familiar to me. December 2 will, unbelievably, mark a year since Gary’s unexpected death—a year since our world came to an end, a year since the onset of my own little apocalypse.

The ending of one’s personal world is not the same, I know, as The End of the World that Jesus describes here. Yet the first Sunday of Advent invites us to recognize that these endings are connected; that the Christ who will return at the end of time somehow inhabits each ending we experience in this life. Every year, Advent calls us to practice the apocalypse: to look for the presence of Christ who enters into our every loss, who comes to us in the midst of devastation, who gathers us up when our world has shattered, and who offers the healing that is a foretaste of the wholeness he is working to bring about not only at the end of time but also in this time, in this place.

As Advent begins, is there something in your life that is ending? How might you look for the presence of Christ who comes to you in that place?

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world
is always ending

the sun has come
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins

—Jan Richardson

Update: “Blessing When the World Is Ending” appears in Jan’s recent book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. You can find the book here.

For previous reflections on this and related passages, visit Advent 1: Practicing the Apocalypse, Advent 1: In Which We Stay Awake, and Advent 1: Through the Door.

An Advent Journey…

ILLUMINATED 2014 — Come join us!
Are you hungry for an experience that invites you into Advent without stressing your schedule? This online retreat is not about adding one more thing to your holidays. It is about helping you find spaces for reflection that draw you deep into this season that shimmers with mystery and possibility. Offering a space of elegant simplicity as you journey toward Christmas, the Illuminated retreat fits easily into the rhythm of your days, anywhere you are. Begins November 30. For info and registration, visit ILLUMINATED 2014. Individual, group, & congregational rates available.

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “End and Beginning,” please visit this page at (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!

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.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.



Advent 2: While You Are Waiting

December 4, 2011

Image: Like One Day © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Epistles, Advent 2, Year B: 2 Peter 3.8-15a

Wait. It’s the word perhaps most associated with the season of Advent, often showing up in the company of the word patience. And indeed in today’s lection from the epistles we see these kindred words make their appearance together as Peter counsels his friends—beloved, he calls them—about time and waiting.

So often we talk about waiting as a passive state, a condition in which we can only cool our heels while a desired result makes its slow and seemingly meandering way toward us. And yet, as we frequently see in the readings for Advent, waiting is a practice that often calls us to work. Peter’s letter is a great example of this. In this missive written to a church in need of encouragement and hope, he uses a fistful of active verbs to tell of how we are to wait for God: leading lives, hastening the coming of the day of God, strive, regard.

I’m struck by how, when Peter uses the word patience or patient, he isn’t simply describing how we are to wait; he is talking about an aspect of God. He tells his friends of how God “is patient with us, not wanting any to perish.” He urges them, “Regard the patience of the Lord as our salvation.”

Sometimes I wait in a way that seems to distance me from God. I push against time; I push against God, who I think should be moving with greater speed and whose sense of time, as Peter points out, is so different from ours. Patience can feel punishing and solitary; it’s what’s left to me while God—who has all the time in the world—takes God’s sweet time.

Yet Peter’s words challenge me to be mindful that patience is not simply something God expects of us; it is also an aspect of God’s own nature. And in telling us of how God is patient with us, I sense that Peter means that God is not only patient toward us—we who, in our flawed state, require so much forbearance from the Divine—but also that God is patient alongside us: that patience is a quality and a practice that God and humans share in together. Waiting is a point of connection between us and God as we all wait with one another for the fullness of time.

It’s important to remember that there is holy waiting—patience that draws us deeper into the heart and the designs of God. And there is waiting that is something other than holy—those occasions when our waiting actually is resistance to taking a necessary action. Or when someone else tells us to be patient because in fact they are unwilling to act or do not want us to act. I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”

And so there is a third word we must bear in mind when waiting and patience make their appearance: discernment needs to be in their company, that we may recognize the time for waiting and the time for taking right action. Discernment itself is a kind of waiting, a practice by which we seek to know the next step God would have us take, rather than relying on our own impulses.

Waiting—and the discernment to which waiting calls us—requires that we clear away what distracts us from seeing clearly. It bids us to make a space in which, in the midst of all the input that comes from those seeking to tell us what we should do, we still ourselves and listen. Making this kind of space can be wrenching, when we are so attached to the things that help us fill our time. Yet this space is rich with possibility and with presence; to use an Advent image, it is pregnant.

“Absence, emptiness, is a bowl of receptivity,” writes artist and calligrapher Laurie Doctor. “Often we want to fill it quickly—and then it gets crowded with all kinds of replacements: busyness, self-importance, lists, talking, TV, email, Scrabble. But waiting, active waiting, as if that bowl will be filled with presence as easily as it was emptied, leads us somewhere else.”

How are you waiting? Where is your waiting leading you? In this season, how are you making a space for stillness and for listening, that you might know what you need to wait for and how God is calling you to participate in what God is bringing about?

Blessing for Waiting

Who wait
for the night
to end

bless them.

Who wait
for the night
to begin

bless them.

Who wait
in the hospital room
who wait
in the cell
who wait
in prayer

bless them.

Who wait
for news
who wait
for the phone call
who wait
for a word

who wait
for a job
a house
a child

bless them.

Who wait
for one who
will come home

who wait
for one who
will not come home

bless them.

Who wait with fear
who wait with joy
who wait with peace
who wait with rage

who wait for the end
who wait for the beginning
who wait alone
who wait together

bless them.

Who wait
without knowing
what they wait for
or why

bless them.

Who wait
when they
should not wait
who wait
when they should be
in motion
who wait
when they need
to rise
who wait
when they need
to set out

bless them.

Who wait
for the end
of waiting
who wait
for the fullness
of time
who wait
emptied and
open and

who wait
for you,

o bless.

—Jan Richardson

2015 update: “Blessing for Waiting” appears in Jan’s new book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. You can find the book here.

P.S. For a related reflection on waiting, click the image or title below:

Door 15: Another Name for Patience

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

*Resources for the Season*

Advent 2: Blessing the Way

December 1, 2011

Blessing the Way © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 2, Year B: Mark 1.1-8

To write this piece, I had to go for a walk, had to be in motion as I pondered Mark’s words about John the Baptist, this man who devoted his life to preparing a way. Up one street and down another, I thought about roads that I had taken. I remembered an enchanted afternoon spent with friends in rural Virginia, walking through the woods on a pathway that had been there since colonial times. I thought of the small stretch of the Appalachian Trail that I hiked one day, and of my brother who had traveled the entire length of the trail, nearly 2200 miles, the year before. I recalled occasions that I have navigated a labyrinth, tracing the ancient pattern that has provided a contemplative path for centuries.

In my vocation as an artist/writer/minister, I live constantly with the awareness that there are no maps for what I am doing; that I am making the path as I go, with all the wonders and challenges this brings. Yet Advent is a season that calls me to remember that even as I move across what seems like uncharted territory, there is a way that lies beneath the way that I am going. Others have traveled here ahead of me, each in their own fashion yet providing pieces that I can use: scraps of words, images, prayers, stories; fragments that help me to find my way and enable me to smooth the path a bit for others yet to come.

In some sense we are all creating the road as we go. Yet beneath this, undergirding this, is a path carved by those who have traveled here before us, who followed the God who called them to the journey, who gave themselves to preparing a way for the One who came into the world to walk with us.

What path are you traveling in this Advent season? What do you find along the way that can help you create the road as you go? Who has helped to fashion the path and has provided inspiration to walk it in your own manner? How might you prepare the way—and become part of the way—for the Christ who comes to us?

Blessing the Way

With every step
you take,
this blessing rises up
to meet you.

It has been waiting
long ages for you.

Look close
and you can see
the layers of it,

how it has been fashioned
by those who walked
this road before you,

how it has been created
of nothing but
their determination
and their dreaming,

how it has taken
its form
from an ancient hope
that drew them forward
and made a way for them
when no way could be

Look closer
and you will see
this blessing
is not finished,

that you are part
of the path
it is preparing,

that you are how
this blessing means
to be a voice
within the wilderness

and a welcome
for the way.

—Jan Richardson

2015 update: “Blessing the Way” appears in Jan’s new book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. You can find the book here.

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage, click the thumbnail or title below:

A Way in the Wilderness

Since John the Baptist appears in the Advent lectionary each year—and more than once—there are a number of reflections here that feature him. To find them, simply enter “John the Baptist” in the search bar near the top of this page.

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

Advent 1: In Which We Stay Awake

November 24, 2011

Image: The Luminous Night © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 1, Year B: Mark 13.24-37

“Shall I make a pot of coffee?” Gary asked me late last night—much too late last night—as I was burning the after-midnight oil, trying to finish everything on my list before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday. He knows I don’t drink coffee (though I love the smell); it was his way of asking if I really planned on being up all night. At that point I was wrestling with technology that had chosen the worst moment to break down, and I could probably have stayed up till dawn trying to fix it, but finally I shut everything down for the night, left my studio, and went to bed. Where I then lay awake until the wee hours, as sometimes happens when I have worked too long and too late.

As I lay there, willing myself toward sleep, the Gospel reading for this Sunday floated through my insomniac brain (this blog post being another thing I didn’t manage to finish before I left). It was not lost on me, alert in the small hours, how Advent always begins with a word about wakefulness. “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” Jesus says in this passage about the end of days that, along with its parallels in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, is known as the “Little Apocalypse.” “…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

It’s a different kind of wakefulness, of course, that Jesus is talking about here as he tells his hearers how to recognize the signs of his returning. The wakefulness that Jesus describes is a state—a practice, a way of being—that bears little resemblance to the ways we usually try to keep ourselves (or unwittingly find ourselves) awake, methods that usually leave us jangly-nerved and less than fully functional.

Jesus urges us toward a kind of awareness in which, whatever else we are doing—even in resting and sleeping—some part of us remains open, stays alert, pays attention to what is unfolding and reflects on what it means. Jesus is talking here about cultivating the habit of keeping vigil: the art of waiting. He is describing a kind of awareness and attention in which we learn to not rely solely on what we can see (“the sun will be darkened,” Jesus says, “and the moon will not give its light.”) but turn to the wisdom of the other senses, to discern what they can tell us about what is unfolding in the world around us.

Contemplating this Gospel reading, I thought of this collage (above) that I created during Advent last year. It’s not even a full-blown collage, but one scrap among many that were on my drafting table in that season. I used it in a reflection here about finding myself in a stuck place in the studio. I realized that I had arrived at one of those threshold times that happens in the creative process, when something new is trying to work itself out but is taking its sweet time to make itself known. Like any birth, it tends to be messy. It is a kind of mini-apocalypse in which our familiar landmarks disappear, our sources of illumination go dim, our familiar ways of working no longer work.

It can be daunting to stay soul-awake when these mini-apocalypses come along, whether in the creative process or in life itself, which is its own creative art. It can grow wearying to persist in showing up to what is messy, to what is frustrating, to what lies in shadow, to what seems like it isn’t going anywhere. Yet as Mark’s Gospel reminds us here at the threshold of Advent, such times call us to trust that even in the dark, God is at work, is traveling toward us, has somehow already arrived.

As we enter into Advent, what draws you into the kind of awareness that Jesus describes? How do you enter into a waking that doesn’t depend on stimulants but that calls the deepest layers of our soul to keep a space ready, to pay attention, to turn all our senses toward perceiving where Christ may show up? How do you keep vigil and practice the art of waiting?

Blessing for Waking

This blessing could
pound on your door
in the middle of
the night.

This blessing could
bang on your window,
could tap dance
in your hall,
could set a dog loose
in your room.

It could hire a
brass band
to play outside
your house.

But what this blessing
really wants
is not merely
your waking
but your company.

This blessing
wants to sit
alongside you
and keep vigil
with you.

This blessing
wishes to wait
with you.

And so
though it is capable
of causing a cacophony
that could raise
the dead,

this blessing
will simply
lean toward you
and sing quietly
in your ear
a song to lull you
not into sleep
but into waking.

It will tell you stories
that hold you breathless
till the end.

It will ask you questions
you never considered
and have you tell it
what you saw
in your dreaming.

This blessing
will do all within
its power
to entice you
into awareness

because it wants
to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look
in your eyes
on the day when
your vigil is complete
and all your waiting
has come to
its joyous end.

—Jan Richardson

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving to those celebrating the holiday today! For a brief morsel of a reflection from a previous year, see On the Occasion of Thanksgiving… And for an earlier reflection on this Sunday’s Gospel reading, visit Through the Door.

Righteousness Seeking Peace for Friendship, Possible Relationship

December 7, 2008

Meeting © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Psalter, Advent 2: Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13

In her imaginative work The Book of Qualities, writer and artist J. Ruth Gendler assembles an ensemble of human emotions and attributes. One by one she evokes their personalities with poetic detail, describing each with the skill of someone who is intimately acquainted with them. Among her cast of characters is Wisdom, who “likes to think about the edges where things spill into each other and become their opposites”; Despair, who “papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain”; Change, who “likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I am at my drawing table”; and Devotion, who “braids her grandmother’s hair with an antique comb.”

Gendler’s impulse to personify these qualities places her in good and ancient company. For generations, humans have sought to understand and describe the emotions and characteristics that animate us by, in turn, animating them, personifying them as human figures. We have sought to do this with the Divine as well, exploring the aspects of God by singling them out and giving them form, life, and agency. This week’s lection from the Psalms provides a great example of this—more than one, in fact, for in Psalm 85 the psalmist offers us a quartet of God’s qualities that, in the psalmist’s hands, take dynamic form:

Steadfast love* and faithfulness** will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.

*sometimes translated as mercy
**sometimes translated as truth

The medieval imagination took this impulse to personify the attributes of God and brought it to full flower. In that period, characteristics of the nature of God became a cast of characters that ranged across visual art, literature, poetry, and drama. A number of these characteristics became known as the Virtues, often appearing in contrast to a series of personified Vices. Among the Virtues, four in particular were singled out as the “Daughters of God”: Mercy, Peace, Righteousness (sometimes known as Justice or the wonderfully poetic Rightwiseness), and Truth, our friends from Psalm 85.

These four Daughters of God became the subjects of a medieval allegory that took various visual and literary forms. They starred, for instance, in a 15th-century English morality play called The Castle of Perseverance, in which Justice, supported by Truth, debates with Mercy, aided by Peace. The subject of the debate is the soul of a man who has allowed himself to be taken in by a character called World, whose servants Lust and Folly dress the man in expensive clothes and lead him on misadventures. Ultimately, God sides with Mercy and Truth, and the man is saved. As Lynette R. Muir notes in The Biblical Drama in Medieval Europe, presenting the Daughters of God in the mode of a debate is a typical motif, derived in part from the work of theologians who sought to reconcile the seeming tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy.

We see the personified attributes of God moving also through mystical literature as well as the lives of the saints. St. Francis’ “Lady Poverty,” whom he called his bride, is perhaps the most well known example of this. Wisdom is among the most frequently personified qualities, often holding greater status than the other Virtues; her ubiquitous appearance and high status perhaps owe to the richness with which the Bible personifies the wisdom of God, as in Proverbs 9, where she appears as a woman calling her hearers to join in her feast. In the medieval period, Wisdom appears, for instance, in the visions of the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who in her work Scivias (Know the Ways) describes Wisdom as a beautiful woman standing on top of a high dome, crying out to the people of the world to come and receive the help of God.

Barbara Newman offers an intriguing approach to these personified qualities of God in her work God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages. Newman observes that these characters, which medieval artists, writers, and visionaries depicted so often as women, made the qualities of God accessible to the imaginations of medieval folk and invited them to “participate in divinity” by embracing and embodying the qualities of God in their own lives. By appealing to the religious imagination, the dynamic and lively Virtues helped cultivate one’s devotion to the God who defies definitive description.

So where do we see the qualities of God at play in our own day, in our own imaginations? How do the infinite characteristics of God live and move and take form in our contemporary world? In art, in writing, in liturgy, in the daily living out of our desire to follow Christ, how do we see God taking shape around us and within us? Where do we witness the meeting places of mercy and truth, of peace and justice? In this season of celebrating the incarnation, how do we open our own selves to be a meeting place for the qualities of God?

Here’s one way I imagine it happening.

Saturday Morning, 10 AM

Justice and Peace meet at the café,
sit together,
hands folded around steaming cups,
heads bent over the paper.

They are not taking in
the news of the world
with sorrowing eyes
and the clucking of tongues.

They are instead planning their itinerary,
plotting their map,
looking for the places where
they might slip in.

Their fingers touch, release,
touch again as they read,
moving with the half-aware habits
that come only with long living alongside.

They have met, parted,
met again on countless mornings
like this one, torn and taken
by turns.

They put the paper aside
they brush away the crumbs
they talk quietly
they know there is work to do.

But they order one more cup:
there is savoring they must do before
the saving begins.
They lean in,

barely touching
across the table for
a kiss that makes a way,
a world.

—Jan Richardson

In these Advent days, may we witness and work for the meeting of mercy and truth, justice and peace around us and within us. Blessings.

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

A Way in the Wilderness

November 30, 2008

Image: A Way in the Wilderness © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 2: Mark 1.1-8

Growing up, I was a girl who kept an eye firmly fixed on the horizon. I spent much of high school preparing for college, much of college preparing for seminary, much of seminary preparing for my first pastoral appointment—wherever it would be. When I finally landed at my first church, I soon came to a screeching halt. I had finally arrived at the place for which I had been preparing, and for which God had been preparing me, all these years.

What the heck was I supposed to do now?

I had built up a lot of forward momentum and had amassed many skills at getting ready for the next place on my journey. Once I arrived at St. Luke’s, however, I had no idea how long I would be there, or where I would go when it was time to leave. I realized I needed to learn what it meant to be fully present in that place, to not have one foot out the door throughout my time there, to be less devoted to the distant horizon. I remember telling a friend, in my first year of ministry, that whenever I left, I wanted to be able to say I had been present to these people and that I had made a home there. I had to learn some new skills in order to do this, but when I did leave—four years later and for a new ministry I could hardly have envisioned when I first arrived at St. Luke’s—it was a home and a community I was leaving, not a stepping-stone.

The season of Advent invites us to live within the kind of tension that I discovered in my first pastoral appointment. These days invite and challenge us to turn our eyes toward the horizon, that we may perceive the Christ who is to come again; yet they also draw our attention toward the present, where the presence of God is already stirring. The lectionary readings of Advent 1 have already hinted at this tension, reminding us there is work to do as we wait for the fullness of God. In next Sunday’s gospel reading, we see the intersections and invitations of future and present with particular clarity in the person of John the Baptist.

John makes his appearance at the opening of Mark’s Gospel, from which Sunday’s reading comes. Like the other Gospel writers, Mark casts the Baptizer as the messenger described in Isaiah, the one “who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” With his eyes on the horizon, John has been waiting for Jesus, but he has been at work, too, ministering to those beset by brokenness, preaching to them, and offering them baptism as a sign and ritual of repentance and healing. John the Baptizer is distinctly not inclined to sit around as he waits for the Messiah. For him, waiting and working are inextricable.

John appears in the gospels as a wildly liminal figure, a character who lives and works in a threshold space. He dwells in the wilderness; hangs out by a river; offers the ritual of baptism, which is an initiatory rite, even in this pre-Christian context; and devotes himself to preparing a way for the one who is to come. These actions and images by which the gospel writers describe John all speak to his status as one who inhabits liminal space—an in-between place—and whose purpose is not only to make a path for Christ but also to help others cross into a deeper relationship with God. John is present, too, at pivotal points in Jesus’ life, further emphasizing his liminal character: in Luke’s telling, John and Jesus meet when they are in utero, with John leaping in his mother Elizabeth’s womb as he recognizes and rejoices in encountering his cousin. He is the one who baptizes Jesus, helping to prepare him as he begins his public ministry. Even in death, John continues to serve a liminal role in Jesus’ life; as Matthew tells it, the news of John’s death prompts Jesus to withdraw by boat to a deserted place. That’s what Jesus intends, at least; instead of finding solitude, he is met by the masses, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand ensues.

What intrigues me about the threshold nature of John the Baptizer is the way in which the past, present, and future come together within him. Grounded in the words of the prophet who spoke in centuries past about one who would prepare the way, John turns his face toward the future, and he flings himself into the present and the work that is at hand. He holds past, present, and future in dramatic and creative tension, not becoming overly attached to any one of these realms. Open to the ways that the God of the ages is at work, John is able to recognize Christ when he comes, when he reveals himself in the fullness of time.

These Advent days can be disorienting in the ways that they call us not only to remember the past but also to anticipate the future and attend to the present. Yet this is the work of the threshold, and Advent is a threshold season, a liminal place in the calendar, an in-between time of preparation and expectation. Thresholds offer a heady mix of possibility and peril. They are wildly unpredictable, they stir up questions, they call us to live with uncertainty, they compel us to develop skills at attending to the present even as we discern the future. Ultimately, they are places of initiation, taking us deeper into God and into the person God has created us to be. As I experienced in my first pastoral appointment, as those who received baptism from John experienced, as the Baptizer himself knew: to follow God does not always mean traveling with certainty about where God will lead us; rather, following God calls us to be present to the place where we are, for that is the very place where God shows up.

In these Advent days, how do you live within the tension of past, present, and future? What role does each of these play in your life and in your imagination? Which one are you living in the most these days? How do you experience God in the threshold spaces, the in-between times in your life? What gifts and challenges do the thresholds offer, and what skills do they call forth? What new place and way of being might God be initiating you into in this Advent season? What way is God making within and through you? What way are you making for God?

May God provide what will sustain you in every passage. Blessings.

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

Advent 1: Through the Door

November 23, 2008

advent-door-blog2008-11-23Image: In Those Days © Jan Richardson

Gospel lection, Advent 1, Year B: Mark 13.24-37

I admit it. When I realized that Mark 13.24-37 was the gospel lection for the first Sunday of Advent this year, I cringed. Sometimes called the “little apocalypse,” this passage contains Jesus’ description of the end of the age. “But in those days,” he says, “after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Jesus goes on to talk about how, on a day and hour that no one knows, the Son of Man will come in the clouds with power and glory, and he exhorts his followers to “keep awake.”

In describing the end of the age, Jesus draws on imagery that we find embedded in the Hebrew scriptures, such as the book of Joel:

The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 2.10)

It’s the same kind of imagery that fuels John’s vivid, visionary account in the book of Revelation, as in this passage:

…I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. (Rev. 6.12)

In this text that launches us into Advent, Jesus employs a complex and sobering visual lexicon that’s rich with ancient layers of symbolism and meaning. In doing so, he offers his hearers a vision that disrupts their everyday world. Jesus calls upon them to attend to the signs around them, to look beneath the surface of their patterns of relationships and rhythms of life. He urges them to discern for themselves the activity of God.

We should not wonder that immediately following Jesus’ discourse, Mark tells of the plot to kill him.

I have been wishing for an easier start to the season, for words that would welcome us into Advent with a more graceful sense of hospitality. This lection doesn’t so much beckon us across the threshold as it throws open a door, tosses a cup of cold water in our face to wake us, and shoves us through.

But perhaps, instead of a cozy welcome into the season, this is precisely what we need as we enter Advent: a heaping serving of mystery, a vivid reminder that we can’t know everything, can’t see everything, can’t predict everything that will happen in the days to come. With its depiction of sun and moon going dark and stars falling from heaven, this passage challenges us to give up our usual sources of illumination, to let go of our habitual ways of knowing, to question our typical ways of seeing, so that we may receive the God who comes to us in the dark.

Mystery is rarely comfortable. We want to understand what it is we’re doing here, to see more clearly how God is at work, to know how the future will unfold. This gospel passage confounds us, reminds us that God works in the darkness as well as in the daylight. In the book of Isaiah, God says through the prophet,

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. (Is. 45.3)

Here at The Advent Door, I’ll be exploring some of those secret places—the texts, images, symbols, and stories that this sacred season offers to us, approaching them as doorways into the mystery of the God who comes to dwell among us. In the spirit of having some space to breathe during this season, I’ll be posting several times a week rather than every day, as I did last year. I would love to have your company on the path.

If you’re new to The Advent Door, welcome! It might help to know that the reflections here emerge from a practice called lectio divina, a Greek term that means sacred reading. An ancient way of praying with sacred texts, lectio invites us to find the connections—the thin places, to borrow a term from the Celtic tradition—between the landscape of the scriptures and the landscape of our own lives, and to meet God there.

The images that accompany these reflections are painted paper collages. They’re not meant merely to illustrate the reflections; rather, they are part of my lectio process. They are a way that I pray. Creating artwork gives me a doorway into these Advent texts. These images, too, become texts of their own, creating a visual vocabulary that helps me navigate and articulate what I’m finding in the landscape of this season. Though the collages tend toward the abstract, they draw much inspiration from medieval artwork, particularly as found in illuminated manuscripts such as the jewel-like Books of Hours, Psalters, and the like. The luminous images contained in those medieval manuscripts did more than elaborate the texts they accompanied; rather, the images had their own story to tell. They offered doorways into the mysteries that words alone could not contain.

And so may it be here. May the words and images that emerge in this season offer entryways into the story of the One who came in the midst of darkness to be with us. As we cross the threshold into Advent, what do you need to carry with you? What do you need to let go of, so that you can receive what lies ahead?

Welcome to Advent! Blessings on your way.

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