This year we move directly from our celebrations of the Fourth Sunday of Advent to Christmas Eve, without even pausing to catch our breath! For a brief moment in this liturgical year, we stand on the threshold of the Christmas season, on the edge of Advent, peering expectantly through the door of our upcoming celebrations of Christ’s birth. As such, the liturgy asks us to reflect on the other threshold or liminal spaces we encounter in our lives. The readings, in particular, invite us to ponder three such spaces: the spaces between doubt and faith, promise and fulfilment, and, longing and encounter. But, first, what do we mean by “liminal space”?
The root of the word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, which means threshold. In our spiritual lives, liminal spaces are important because it is here that transformation can occur. The Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr describes liminal space as a place “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.” He goes on to say that a liminal space is “a good place where genuine newness can begin . . . the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. . . . The threshold is God’s waiting room” (Everything belongs: The gift of contemplative prayer, pp. 155-156). Our liturgical celebration of the Fourth Sunday of Advent spilling into our observance of Christmas Eve invites us to contemplate the call to enter into other profound liminal spaces in our lives. Where in our lives are we being asked to leave behind the old and embrace the new?
The Gospel story of the Annunciation allows us to glimpse how Mary dealt with her own “betwixt and between” space between the familiar and the unknown. After all, Gabriel’s message must have been completely perplexing! One minute she was an ordinary young woman betrothed to Joseph and looking forward to their ordinary lives together, lives that likely would never make it into the history books. The next minute she was contemplating the possibility of being pregnant out of wedlock, rejected by Joseph, and becoming the mother of one who would change the world! It’s no wonder she responded to the possibility of this radical shift with a question: “How can this be since I’m a virgin?”
In order to embrace the new life that was being born within her, Mary had to pass through a sort of liminal space between doubt and faith. In the story of the Annunciation we see her move from a place of doubt at her virginal capacity to bear a child, to faith in God’s ever creative and surprising word. Liminal spaces demand a choice, a choice to either cling to the old or embrace the new, a choice between doubt and faith. Mary chose to embrace the new in faith and the world has never since been the same.
This week we also encounter King David and the Prophet Nathan. They are encountering their own sort of liminal space, the space between promise and fulfilment. David is worried that he has settled into his sumptuous royal accommodations while the Ark of the Covenant remains housed in a tent. He intends to build a temple, but God asks him to live in a liminal space a little longer, trusting that future generations will be able to create a suitable “home” for the Lord. David is asked to stake his life and legacy on a promise, trusting in God’s capacity to fulfil that promise even though David himself will not live to see it. Indeed, we hear this particular Scripture passage today because we believe that Jesus’ birth through Mary is the ultimate fulfilment of God’s promise to David, a promise where God assured David that “his throne will be established forever.” As followers of Christ, we too live in the liminal space between promise and fulfilment. We are promised the fulfilment of God’s plan for humanity — what Scripture refers to as God’s kingdom — and we wait to see the fulfilment of that promise fully revealed.
Finally, this threshold between Advent and Christmas invites us to stand in the liminal space between longing and encounter. All through the Advent season we have been ritually preparing, waiting, longing for the birth of Christ. We have been pondering in our hearts the mystery of a God who is willing to become one of us, to enter fully into our limited, embodied human experience. As humans, we long to be in communion with the divine, but that longing is often inchoate, misdirected, unnamed. Advent invites us to ponder that our human longings are ultimately an invitation to enter ever more fully into an encounter with the divine. Christmas promises us that the full encounter between the human and divine is possible in Jesus. As humans we live in the partiality of our limited existence. In Jesus we our offered a pathway into ever deeper communion with our God.
Liminal spaces are necessary moments in our spiritual lives. These threshold experiences invite us to leave behind our old lives and embrace the new. May our celebrations of Christ’s birth encourage us in our journeys. May we, like our ancestors before us, faithfully navigate the thresholds between doubt and faith, promise and fulfilment, and, longing and encounter. May we, too, find the courage to open the doors of our hearts to the abundance of God’s love offered us in the in-between spaces of our lives.
Rompré is the director of Mission and Ministry at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.