category: Advent

Advent Reflection: Day 6

Friday, December 3

Malachi 3:13–18; Philippians 1:18b–26

Liminal: Living in the “in-between” Spaces

Many of us often feel like we are living “on the edge,” waiting for something to happen, on the verge of a “next place” or a “next time.” Years ago when I was deep in grief and depression, my pastoral counselor told me that I was living in a “liminal” place, “betwixt-and-between.” Liminal comes from a Latin word which means “threshold” or a “crossing-over space,” a space where we are about to leave something behind and enter a different place. Maybe liminal is like walking from one room to another room, or moving from one job to another job, or waiting for school to start (or stop). Maybe it is like a caterpillar weaving a cocoon and emerging as a beautiful butterfly, or the astronaut whose rocket soars from the bounds of earth into the darkness of space, all the way to the moon. Liminal is the time between the deep darkness of night and the early rays of morning light.

In the medical center where I train Clinical Pastoral Education students in the art of pastoral care, most of our beds are filled with critically ill patients. Many of them are very sick with Covid-19 or the emerging “Delta” variant of the virus. Elderly men and women, formerly strong healthy young adults, teenagers, children—each of these persons is loved and cared for by medical personnel. When these seriously ill patients are unable to breathe without help, they are placed on ventilators to breathe for them. Some of them recover; some of them do not. Conversations our chaplains have with many of these patients before they are placed on these breathing machines are emotionally charged. Families are often separated; sometimes last goodbyes are said through iPhones or iPads. “Will I live?” “Will I die?” This is liminal space, a time of waiting and hoping.

The Apostle Paul, from a Roman prison cell, was living in a liminal space. “Whether I live … or whether I die … ” he wrote, “hard pressed between the two,” his “eager expectation and hope” was rooted in Christ Jesus. This brings me to Advent and to Jesus. Mary’s nine-month pregnancy was a waiting while Jesus was in the womb. Mary and Joseph were bonding, loving, waiting. Thirty years of Jesus’s life before his baptism was liminal—waiting. Then there’s the cross and death. Three days in the tomb—waiting for what’s next. Even what the church often describes as “the Second Coming” is liminal time. We live betwixt-and-between.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” That quote has been attributed to seventeenth-century French physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, and to the twentieth-century American astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan. It’s a nice thought for Advent, no matter what comes next in our lives. So, how do we live in the “in-between” times? The message of Advent for God’s children while we wait is: Prepare for something new and incredible that’s coming. Be patient. Hope. God’s joy is just around the corner.


Doug Dickens
Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

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