19th December 2021
A sermon preached by Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close
Sunday 19 December 2021, The Fourth Sunday of Advent
See bottom of the page for a video of this sermon
‘Liminal’ – I first heard the word when I was on a Leadership Course at Canterbury Cathedral. I was there to learn about the theory and practise of leadership in the church, so preparing me for when I would be called to bigger and better things. The call never really came, but I did act in that capacity, for better or worse, where I was set. Anyway, on the course I heard this word for the first time – as I also heard the word ‘liminality’. Both I now discover, are derived from the Latin word ‘limen’, originally use in anthropology, to describe a threshold between what is and what might be and is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle-stage of a rite of passage.
During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes. In more recent times, the use of the word has been extended to take in political and cultural change too. During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes, once taken for granted, may be thrown into doubt. It seems to me to be a useful word to help describe where we are at present. We are in a liminal state, at this point in the pandemic.
We have moved from pre-COVID, and we are hopefully making our way to post-COVID, but at present we are betwixt and between, standing between, no longer and not yet. We can’t go back, and the way forward is repeatedly delayed, the period of standing on the threshold is continually being extended. This period of liminality is stretching into the far distance. It is a difficult place to be stuck – transition, perhaps analogous with the experience of Fell Walkers in the Lake District. As the walkers climb the fell, the end of the climb seems in sight, just a little way further up the steep incline, yet as the walkers stride determinedly forward, they sudden find that they have only reached a ridge on the fell not the top. It can be physically and mentally exhausting, having to go again, much as we are finding with this liminal stage in the pandemic, draining physically, mentally, and emotionally, with the end once again tantalisingly out of sight. That’s all very interesting you might be thinking, but what has it got to do with our scripture readings?
It seems to me that there is a connection to both. In the Old Testament Lesson, we heard prophetic wordsconcerning the coming of the Messiah. These and other prophetic utterances, created a liminal space for those who were listening. The prophets spoke about the past being put behind the Israelites and a golden future opening up before them, yet for many years they remained in the here and now – on the threshold. Those who headed the prophets’ clarion call, were longing for this transition to come to an end, they were ready to step away from the past and into the new future, they were expectant, they were eager, but they still had to wait for the coming of the Saviour.
The second lesson is the point at which the transition came to an end for the Israelites, the Saviour was born – Jesus who would usher in God’s Kingdom. The early Christians had great expectations that Jesus’ life death and resurrection would bring the Kingdom into being when Jesus returned for the Day of Judgement. Unfortunately, it appears that Jesus’ delay has created another liminality – there has been no judgement day, the kingdom is still waiting in the wings. It is not possible to sustain a heighten state of anticipation and expectation, so over the years anticipation and expectation have been dialled down.
Christian have grown accustomed to this liminality and indeed have grown accustomed to being forever on the threshold of some ‘big thing’. Perhaps the Church’s year is our mechanism for coping with the Kingdom deferred? The Church has created its own drama around the story of salvation, so Advent has become a liminal space. For four weeks the church tradition steers us from the past to the future, which dawns on Christmas Day. This liminal space is finite and leads to the birth of the Saviour, to Emmanuel – God with us, a new world order which is repeated annually, like a time loop in a Dr. Who story, where the same events occur again and againand again. We are continually standing with our backs turned to ‘No Longer’, facing ‘Not yet’. We are stuck on the threshold, like a vampire that can’t enter a house without being invited. Yet I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps some have grown happy with this liminal state because we have grown comfortable where we are, preferring what we know to what might be, because what might be, would be unsettling and would definitely require effort.
We have become like those who heard the ancient prophets – we long for some decisive action from outside of ourselves, divine intervention –unfortunately for us Jesus was that divine intervention and now the decisive action is ours to take, to commit ourselves to follow Jesus, wholeheartedly.
In Matthew chapter 10 and verse 7, Jesus tells his disciples, as they set out on their preaching mission, to tell all those they meet that, ‘The Kingdomof Heaven has come near.’ In another passage he tells his disciples: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Is Jesus implying the liminal state is already at an end and if so, are we wilfully choosing a state of stasis? Are we content to be remain on the threshold? Are we comfortable this liminality? Or are we those who will embrace the Kingdom of God, live by its values now, cross the threshold, and take others with us on this journey, so that: “…the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”