Archive for the ‘medieval’ Category

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 Your use of helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

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).]

Tangled Up in You

December 25, 2008

Tangled Up in You © Jan L. Richardson

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

Of all the artful treasures passed down in the Christian tradition, some of the most amazing are the early medieval Gospel books from Ireland and its neighbors. The Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Gospels of St. Chad: fashioned by monks living in such places as Iona and Lindisfarne between the seventh and tenth centuries, these and other Gospel books offer a remarkable testament to the power of the Word to inspire devotion and beauty. Monks undertook the creation of these books as an act of prayer, lavishing their artful attention on the pages over the course of months and years. They drenched the pages with colors derived from the things of the earth: flowers and seeds and leaves, precious stones and minerals, even inks made from insects.

A distinctive feature of the Celtic Gospel books is the intricate knotwork that adorns the pages. Serving not merely as decoration, the knotwork connects the words and images so intricately that the boundary between them breaks down: words become images become words. All manner of forms and symbols twist through and among the knots, telling their own stories: animals and angels, crosses, chalices brimming with vines, and human figures including Christ, Mary, and the four evangelists. Some of the knotwork marries the silly with the sublime. Mice play tug-of-war with a Communion wafer, cats bound from page to page, intertwined men tug at one another’s beards. And everywhere there are books, reminding the viewer not only of the power of the Gospel but also of the enduring presence of the Word who took flesh and became incarnate in this world, a living Word for all to read.

The most ornate pages of these Gospel books are labyrinths that beckon readers to enter the mysteries of this Word, to lose themselves and find themselves again within the twisting pathways of the Gospel story. These volumes not only stand as a stunning sacrifice of skill and devotion; they also offer a way of approaching the Gospel story. With their intricate and intimate interplay of words and images, the Gospel books proclaim the story of the God who came to become entangled with us. Page by page, knot by knot, they tell the good news of the God who desires to be thoroughly intertwined with us.

The intricacy of these books testifies to the complexities of the Gospel story. With roots that twist deep into the Hebrew scriptures, the Gospel texts have layers of meaning that we can hardly begin to understand if we have not studied the texts that came before them. Symbols, stories, patterns of God’s relationship with God’s people, the ancient hopes and struggles and journeys that the people of God have undertaken: all of the tales and literary traditions that the Gospel writers inherited helped to inspire and inform the stories that they told. The Celtic Gospel books acknowledge this, intertwining pre-Christian imagery and allusions with symbolism drawn from the New Testament. The very design of these books serves to confound our assumptions that we entirely understand what their Gospel texts contain. With their complicated pathways, intricate knots, and dizzying spirals, these books remind us that the Christian life is an ongoing journey of initiation, and one that only grows more mysterious and complex the deeper we go.

For all its complexities, however, at times the Gospel story stuns us with its simplicity. It startles us with the clarity by which it reflects and speaks to our ancient human yearnings and fears and hopes. So it is with the story we hear on this day. In a dark time, John tells us in his gospel, God came to us. God put on flesh and was born among us. And this God is life. And this God is light. For all people.

And the light shines in the darkness.

And the darkness did not overcome it.

God came to get tangled up with us, to become entwined with us, to be knitted and knotted into our lives. The knots are not always tidy. I can admire the wondrous and beautiful patterns that the Celtic artists accomplished, but the patterns and entanglements of my own life, and my own art, tend to be far less orderly. Yet amid the complexities and complications and conundrums that life offers us, God twists and turns, walking the labyrinth with us and helping us find our way through.

On this Christmas Day, where do you find yourself on the twisting path? How do you experience the God who desires to be intertwined among all the elements of your life? Are there any tangles that could do with some attention? How might it be to invite God into those? If you were to paint or draw or collage the pattern of your life right now, what would it look like? What story, what good news, does that pattern contain and proclaim?

On this and all days, may you know the presence of the God who came to us and who goes with us still, entangling us and entwining us. I am grateful to you for sharing this Advent path, and I invite you to continue to journey with me as I return to The Painted Prayerbook, exploring the intertwining of words and images in the year to come. Blessings and deep blessings to you. Merry Christmas!

[For last year’s reflection on this passage, visit Door 25: The Book of Beginnings.]

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

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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!]

Getting the Message

December 16, 2008

Image: Getting the Message © Jan 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 image “Getting the Message,” please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Where I’m From

December 7, 2008

advent-door-blog-2008-12-7Image: Where I’m From © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 3: John 1.6-8, 19-28

If you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu in reading next Sunday’s gospel lesson, it’s understandable. This passage from John circles us back around some of the textual territory that we visited in the gospel reading for Advent 2. John approaches his subject in a different fashion than does Mark, but, as in Mark, John the baptizer makes an early appearance in the gospel. Once again we hear words about making a way in the wilderness. Yet where Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, borrows those way-making words from Isaiah and editorially applies them to John the Baptist, using his authority as a narrator to make clear that the Baptist is the one of whom Isaiah was speaking, John takes an intriguing turn in his gospel.

In John the evangelist’s version of the story, the priests and Levites approach the baptizer, asking him, “Who are you?” He begins by saying who he is not: “I am not the Messiah.” They persist. “What then? Are you Elijah?” John emphasizes he is not Elijah, nor is he the anticipated prophet. They ask him again, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” In his own voice, John responds,

I am the voice of one crying out
in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Where the other gospel writers linked the Isaiah passage with the story of John as an editorial comment, John the evangelist places Isaiah’s ancient words on the baptizer’s own lips. His narrative choice imbues the baptizer with a deep clarity about his role in the story of the Messiah. Though not the promised prophet for whom the people had long waited, John the Baptist’s claiming of Isaiah’s words to describe himself places him firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He knows he comes from Elizabeth and from Zechariah, but with his answer he places himself in the lineage of those for whom the wilderness, both literal and metaphorical, was their home, their place of formation as messengers of God. John’s response to his questioners is not only a way of saying who he is, but also where—and whom—he has come from.

In pondering John’s clarity about where he has come from, and how this informs his understanding of what God has formed and fashioned him to do, I’ve found myself thinking about a poem that recently circled my way. Written by Appalachian poet George Ella Lyon, “Where I’m From” offers a litany of the places and people, the artifacts and experiences that hold the poet’s roots. “I am from clothespins,” she begins,

from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)

[Read the whole poem here.]

Lyon comments that the poem has traveled widely, circulating as a writing prompt. “People have used it at their family reunions,” she writes, “teachers have used it with kids all over the United States, in Ecuador and China; they have taken it to girls in juvenile detention, to men in prison for life, and to refugees in a camp in the Sudan. Its life beyond my notebook is a testimony to the power of poetry, of roots, and of teachers.”

In our mobile society, it’s sometimes hard to say where we’re from, hard to name the roots that hold us as more and more of us live at a distance from the places (which may have been many) and people we grew up with. And yet Lyon’s poem reminds us that roots happen in a variety of ways, sometimes but not always tied to one particular place. Our increasing physical rootlessness is perhaps itself a kind of wilderness, akin to what John the Baptist experienced—but the wilderness, as John knew, is a place to be from, too.

So on this Advent evening, inspired by the baptizer and by an Appalachian poet, I’ve been thinking about where I’m from, and what direction my roots are turning me toward.

Where I’m From

I am from orange groves
and old Florida,
from a house my parents built
in a field my grandfather gave them.
Black-eyed Susans grew there in the spring,
so thick we played hide and seek
simply by kneeling among them.

I am from a town
with more cows than people,
from Judy and from Joe,
from generations that have grown up
in one place.

I am from peanut butter and
honey sandwiches every morning,
from my grandmothers’ kitchens,
from Thanksgiving feasts in the
community park,
from Christmas Eves in the
white painted church
among the pine trees.

I am from the dictionary we kept
by the dinner table
where we ate words like food,
from hours and days in libraries,
from miles of books.
I am from the path they have made.

I am from solitude and silence,
from the monks and mystics who lived
between the choir and the cell,
from the scribes bent over their books,
from parchment and paint,
from ancient ink and from gold
that turned pages into lamps,
into light.

I am from women less quiet,
women of the shout and the stomp,
testifying wherever they could make
their voices heard.
I am from Miriam and Mary and Magdalena
and from women unknown and unnamed,
women who carried their prayers
not in books
but in their blood
and in their bones,
women who passed down the sacred stories
from body to body.

I am from them,
listening for their voices,
aching to hear,
to tell, to cry out,
to make a way for those
yet to come.

—Jan Richardson

So where are you from? What are the places, the people, the experiences that formed your path? What holds your roots? How does where you’re from help you understand who you are? How does it enable you to make a way for the one who comes in this and every season?

Wherever you’re from, wherever you’re going, peace to you as you continue to find and fashion your path. Blessings.

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

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!]

Music and Mystery

December 3, 2008


Like lots of folks, I rely on music to help me cross into the holiday season and navigate its terrain. During Advent and Christmas we anticipate and celebrate the incarnation, the Word who became flesh, but sometimes it takes more than words alone to evoke and enter into the mysteries of the story of the God who came to be with us.

Over the past few years, I’ve gone in search of Christmas music that takes my ears beyond the customary holiday fare. Although there are some contemporary songs in my stack of holiday CDs, my collection leans pretty heavily toward music that reaches backward in time. This is music that draws the listener deep into the layers of stories and legends surrounding the birth of Christ, music that echoes with the ancient human longing for light and celebration in a dark time. These are songs of signs and wonders, with words and melodies that beckon us to enter into the audacious, mysterious, hopeful, and wild tales they have to tell.

Here’s some of what I’m listening to in this season. Most of these CDs are readily available online through the usual sources. I’ve provided links for a couple that are offered through CD Baby, an excellent site that’s devoted to independent musicians, and would especially encourage your support of their songmaking in this season.

Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols
Legends of St. Nicholas
On Yoolis Night

Anonymous 4

The women of Anonymous 4 are masters of reaching into the treasures of centuries past to offer sustenance in the present. These three CDs are now available in a boxed set titled Noël: Carols & Chants for Christmas; the set also includes the CD A Star in the East, a collection of medieval chant from Hungary. (As a single CD, A Star in the East is now available under the somewhat more mundane title Christmas Music From Medieval Hungary).

La Bela Naissença: Christmas Carols from Provence
Patrick Vaillant, et al.

Ooohhh, I really love this one; it’s one of the newest in my collection and is among my all-time favorites. I first heard excerpts from it on Harmonia, the splendid radio show that features early music and offers archived shows on its web site. “La Fugida en Egipte” (The Flight into Egypt), with its wry alleluia, is worth the price of the CD, and Patrick Vaillant’s liner notes are a big slab of icing (chocolate) on this Christmas cake. He writes,

The Nativity is not just a series of images. A whole imaginary world is stirring behind them, and it is this that carries the entire story and all its little meanders, giving a bit of legend here and a measure of familiarity there to the whole mystery. The music is there to reveal, to unfold the tale, to give these images their dimension in sound….Christmas carols are witnesses.

The Bells of Dublin
The Chieftains

A great CD with a big dose of Irish flair. Here the Chieftains mix it up with such folks as Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, and Marianne Faithfull, plus Jackson Browne with his song “The Rebel Jesus,” which should be part of the Christmas carol canon.

Bruce Cockburn

One of the first CDs I purchased when I started searching for nontraditional fare. It’s actually very traditional, in the sense that it draws on lots of old carols, including the haunting “Iesus Ahatonnia” (The Huron Carol, written by a Jesuit missionary in the early 1600s; Cockburn says it’s the first Canadian Christmas carol) and “Down In Yon Forest” (of which Cockburn writes, “If there were a contest for the title of the spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down”). Though filled with traditional fare, the Canadian Cockburn puts a spin on it that makes it feel like a different animal entirely.

Christmas Through the Ages
Various artists; the composers include Arcangelo Corelli (how could he not have written Christmas music, with a name like that?), Benjamin Britten, and John Rutter

Aside from the tasty Christmas fare this contains, I couldn’t resist having a CD with a cover that features a fantastic depiction of the wise men wearing what look like parti-colored stockings, from a 6th century mosaic in the basilica of San Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Visit the spiffy magi.)

The Black Madonna: Pilgrim Songs from the Monastery of Montserrat
Ensemble Unicorn

This isn’t specifically a Christmas CD, but this wondrous collection of medieval pilgrim songs from Spain begins with a song about the Annunciation to Mary and ends with a Catalan round that makes mention of the magi. Sandwiched in between is a festive array of songs that tell some of the stories and miracles of the mother of Christ. The CD includes a couple of selections from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, an enormous collection of 13th-century songs in praise of the Virgin Mary. Written in Galician-Portuguese during the reign of King Alfonso X, known as “El Sabio” (“The Wise”), a number of the songs are attributed to El Sabio himself. The interaction of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions exerted an intriguing influence on the culture of medieval Spain. The songs included in The Black Madonna bear witness to this; they convey the sense that something very ancient and complex is at work in them.

Mistletoe and Wine
Mediaeval Baebes

Baebes indeed. This CD gathers up songs from a couple of their previous holiday CDs and includes “There Is No Rose Of Swych Vertu” and “The Coventry Carol.”

To Drive the Cold Winter Away
Loreena McKennitt

Containing a couple of original songs from this distinctive Canadian singer-composer, this CD primarily features traditional Christmas music from England, Ireland, and Scotland. She’s also just recently come out with a new holiday collection, A Midwinter’s Night Dream, which takes the five songs from her 1995 recording A Winter Garden and adds eight new ones. Of this new CD, Loreena says, “I really wanted to recapture some of the frankincense and myrrh in this music.” With instruments such as cello, oud, lyra, and lute accompanying her haunting vocals, Loreena achieves an exotic ambience that evokes the mysteries of winter.

A Winter’s Solstice III
Windham Hill Artists

For sentimental reasons. This is one of the oldest in my collection of cool Christmas CDs. I still particularly delight in Pierce Pettis’s take on “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Barbara Higbie’s “Lullay, Lully.”

The Christmas Gift
Cheryl Branz

This just arrived as a wondrous surprise in my mailbox. Singer-songwriter Cheryl Branz is a friend from the Grünewald Guild, and her voice will warm the cockles of your heart. The Christmas Gift is a new release that includes familiar holiday songs and carols as well as an original called “Skating,” which Cheryl wrote for her mom, who skated professionally with The Ice Capades. Available by visiting The Christmas Gift at CD Baby.

The Night of Heaven & Earth
Gary Doles

I’ve been saving my favorite for last. This CD makes me think of a passage from the Book of Isaiah, where God says these words through the prophet: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (Isaiah 45.3, NRSV). Gary (also known as Garrison) Doles is an award-winning singer/songwriter who has entered into the shadowy, secret places of the Advent and Christmas seasons and has found the riches there. With this treasure trove of utterly original songs, Gary invites us to come and find the delights and the challenges of the God who put on flesh and came to be with us. He also happens to be my sweetheart, and my enthusiasm about this CD isn’t merely a girlfriend’s bias; it’s this kind of amazing stuff that made me fall in love with him in the first place. Check out The Night of Heaven and Earth at CD Baby.

May your ears find many delights to draw you into the mysteries of this season.

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!]

Door 23: Doing Some Dreaming

December 23, 2007

Doing Some Dreaming © Jan L. Richardson

Among the leaves of a tenth-century illuminated manuscript in the Medici Library in Rome, Joseph lies dreaming. Hands resting on his stomach, brow creased, Joseph sleeps on a multicolored coverlet. Having just discovered that his fiance Mary is pregnant, Joseph has gone to bed thinking he will “dismiss her quietly,” as Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel reading (Mt. 1.18-25). He will wake up with a different plan altogether.

Coming from the upper corner of this manuscript page, an angel with boots and blue wings hurtles toward the slumbering Joseph. “Shooting towards Joseph like a projectile from heaven,” Sister Wendy Beckett says of the angel; “a spiritual rocket is about to land on his anxious slumbers, and his rational world will deconstruct.”

This vivid and homely depiction of Joseph’s dream, and Sister Wendy’s commentary on it, has me thinking today about the intersections between what we tend to call the real world and the world of the imagination, the realm of dreams and visions and stories. Sr. Wendy reminds us that although Jesus’ birth is marked by signs and wonders, it is rooted in the very real experience of a woman who finds herself pregnant and a man who has to discern how to respond to this.

“The birth of Christ,” Sr. Wendy observes in her commentary on this illumination, “can seem utterly removed from the everyday reality of our own life, elevated into a sacred sphere where all is peace and joy. Not so: Mary is living in a real world, though in her innocence she may not have appreciated the full dimensions of it.” (From Sister Wendy’s Nativity and Life of Christ, 1998.)

This artful depiction of the dreaming Joseph and his dive-bombing angel vividly illuminates the intersection of the real world with the dreaming world. Here in the final days of Advent, it’s a timely image, and a timely story, to ponder.

At this point in the Advent season, we may find ourselves wrestling with the hopes and expectations we carried into the season. Ideas we had about how we would spend these days may not have come to pass. Plans we made to have shopping completed by this point, gifts wrapped and under the tree (or in the mail), Christmas cards sent, decorations hung and radiant, cooking preparations under way—and time for intensely meaningful quiet reflection in the midst of it all—well, that just might not have happened quite the way we’d hoped. The real world—the realm in which people get sick, wars continue, death comes to call, relationships crumble, and women find themselves unexpectedly pregnant—may be impinging heavily on us in this season, and for some folks, there is deep dissonance between the culturally expected cheer of this season and the realities of what this month has brought.

How do we move beyond this dissonance to open ourselves to that deeper place where the real world and the dream world intersect?

The past few days of this Advent season have found me trying to discern my way through some chaos that erupted in my personal ecosystem. I’ve spent a fair chunk of time having conversations in my head with a couple of folks who have me sorely vexed. I’ve been focused on trying to move through the emotional layers toward a reasoned, rational, grounded response. But in contemplating the text that Matthew has given us for today, I find myself wondering, what if there’s some other realm I need to open myself to as I discern my way through this? Beyond the realm of emotion, and beyond the realm of reason—both of which are important realms to pay attention to—might there be an additional source that has some help and wisdom waiting for me?

I imagine that Joseph knew about emotion, that he had some kind of visceral reaction when Mary told him she was pregnant. In response, he drew on reason and rationality to form a plan.

And then, Matthew tells us, Joseph dreamed. And his dream came as an interruption, a disruption to both the emotional and reasoned realms he had been inhabiting and acting from. In that powerful collision between the real world and the dreaming world, so literally depicted in the manuscript in the Medici Library, a new way opened up for Joseph. And for Mary. And for Jesus.

As I continue to discern what role I’m being called to take in the chaos that’s gotten stirred up this week, I’m feeling challenged to carry that image of Joseph. His story, and its placement at this point in the Advent season, feels like an invitation to pay attention to my dreaming world. I’m not referring just to my night dreams; I’m thinking also of other realms where the unconscious bubbles up into my awareness. In my creative work, in my life of prayer and contemplation, in the landscape of my imagination: what wisdom might God be offering in those places? What messages might that realm have to offer, as Joseph discovered in his dreaming sleep?

How have you been experiencing the so-called real world in these Advent days? What hopes and expectations did you carry into this Advent season, and what are your hopes now? Who’s got your ear these days—family, friends, news media, old voices you’ve been carrying around in your head, sorely vexatious people with whom you’re having imaginary conversations—and what are they telling you?

What message do you need to hear? What realms are you listening into? How do you—how do we—cultivate an openness to the place where the real world and the dreaming world intersect and offer us the message that we most need?

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