Thin spaces of Advent

Photo by James Handley on Unsplash

“Now the heavens start to whisper, as the veil is growing thin.” (Voices Together #237)

Have you ever had a line from a hymn jump out at you? This one did for me, during the first Sunday of Advent. I began to imagine the distance between heaven and earth narrowing as the days become shorter and dimmer, the veil becoming thin.

Travel writer Eric Weiner wrote: “It’s not clear who first uttered the term ‘thin places,’ but they almost certainly spoke with an Irish brogue. Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” Thin places beguile, inspire, sedate, stir, disorient. “We lose our bearings and find new ones.”

I am experiencing Advent this year as a thin season. I love the image of heaven whispering. And that makes me think about all the angels at work in the Christmas stories. Angels with Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, the shepherds – and maybe with us.

I don’t have a well developed theology of angels, and never really felt the need. But lately I’ve been imagining angels as a divine truth-telling force that occasionally gets through to us. In Advent the veil becomes thin, and the presence of angels becomes more palpable. We are more easily beguiled, inspired, stirred or disoriented. We lose our bearings and find new ones.

My husband Kevin and I have been enjoying this year’s Advent at Home materials, written by College Mennonite Church’s own Talashia Keim Yoder. In the Scripture texts, voices seem to be trying to break through the veil: Wake up! Watch! Turn around! Leave behind what is not serving you! Look! A new thing is happening! Don’t miss it!

“Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,” we sing.

But as author and Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz Weber points out:

We aren’t talking the little chubby baby angels of bad Hallmark cards. . . No man, angels in the Bible are terrifying. They scare the bejesus out of people. I mean, why else would the very first thing out of the mouths of every single angel in the Bible be “don’t be scared!”, like their heavenly employee manual says, never attempt to deliver your message from God until you have completely calmed the human down first.

Which makes me wonder how many times I have not perceived a God-given message because I was too afraid to receive it. In the first chapter of Luke, Zechariah talks back when the angel tells him his barren wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, and the angel strikes him silent – a non-violent tactic to get him out of the way so that God’s work could go on without further interference. So far, God has not struck me dumb, which would seem to be in my favor. But that might simply mean that I was not as awake as Zechariah and missed the message altogether.

Angels in these stories terrify, disorient, inform and inspire, but they do not coerce or force; it is still our work and our opportunity to listen, to see and to respond. All of which Malcolm Guite expresses so well in his poem Annunciation, from his book Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany:

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

What are we seeing? Are we listening?

Rebecca Stoltzfus