Advent and Liminality, Part 2

Advent and Liminality, Part 2

A liminal space is the time between the “what was” and the “next.” It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.[1]

Last week I defined liminal space as a threshold dividing one state of being from another. Advent is a liminal space that invites us into a deeper understanding and experience of the personal rebirth represented by the songs, stories, and expressions of the Advent and Christmas seasons. When we do not engage the liminal natureof Advent, the season is largely a commercialized, exhausting, often lonely and meaningless season where we give lip service to the birth of a Savior with only the vaguest idea of what that means. If we only look for a Savior to cover our sins and allow us entry into heaven when we die, we have missed the point. Unfortunately, that is the explanation taught by many religious institutions, parents, and others. It is no so much an inaccurate portrayal of the birth of the Son of Man as it is a shallow, incomplete, and non-transformational one.

Liminal space is an invitation to change – not to change our partner, the world, or the Christmas season, but to change ourselves so our internal experience of our partner, the world, and the Christmas season changes. Sometimes liminal space is forced upon us, as with the death of a loved one or a grim medical diagnosis. This is liminal space where something of value has been taken from us, or when challenges we would not choose suddenly appear. We pray for a return to the way things once were, but there is no going back unchanged. In fact, the longer and stronger we hold out for a return to the past, the more deeply we fall into despair because we are chasing something that is not available. Liminal space is often like that, where we can neither return to what was comfortable and familiar, nor is the future clear enough for us to comfortably and willingly venture into it. The door to the future – the liminal threshold – is there, but we fear that by entering it we will lose everything we held dear from the past. When an uncertain future is too frightening to embrace, we get stuck.

There is another sort of liminal space, however, that is an opportunity rather than an imposition. We can choose to engage or refuse it. The future this liminal space invites us into, however, will be no clearer than when change is forced upon us. Neither path allows a return to the way things were. Entering this type of liminality is a conscious choice, which is the nature of the liminality of Advent. There is probably no significant penalty in deciding not to enter the path today or even this season. By choosing not to step onto the life-altering path of Advent, Christmas will likely continue as it always has – lots of excitement, stress, and expense – and once over, life will return to the way it was before. For many of us, that is not necessarily a bad thing. When the status quo is good, most of us are not inclined to risk an optional but potentially major life change. The problem with declining the liminal invitation of Advent is that the status quo is neither sustainable nor transformational.

As John the Baptist prepared folks for the coming of Jesus, he told them to Repent, which means to turn around or to change course. Willingness to change is a necessary prerequisite to consciously receiving Emmanuel – God with us. And this is the preparatory message of Advent: that unless we turn around, we will not experience the transformational emergence of the birth of Christ within – not because it is withheld from us, but because we will not be in a state to receive it.

The Christmas message is one of personal transformation, and Advent is a time of preparation. According to the Christmas story, Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room for him elsewhere. Even so, he came. In a similar way, if there is no room in our conscious life-space for the Christ, the emergence of God into humanity still occurs, just not in us.

The deepest meanings of Christmas cannot be told – not in the Bible, a sermon, or a Life Note –because they cannot be conveyed in words. Christmas is an experience, not a story. It is new life born of welcoming and allowing the Spirit to emerge in and through us. Such deep love never forces itself upon us. It does, however, respond when we surrender and create space for it to work its magic in us.

The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of other individuals or organizations. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.


[1] Jon DeWaal and Shonnie Scott, “What Is a Liminal Space?” Liminal Space, http://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/. Reprinted in Crisis Contemplation, Barbara A Holmes, CAC Publishing, 2021, p. 128.

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