When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.” (Matthew 1.18-24a, NRSV)

When I was growing up, one of my favorite worship services at my church was the Tenebrae service during Holy Week. The service was a traditional series of scripture readings and the extinguishing of candles along with communion. The main reason I loved it was because it was dark. I mean really dark. The only light in the huge sanctuary was from the candles up front, the small lectern light for the readers, and a small light on the communion table—where a group would take communion in silence after each reading. 

Instructions prior to the service included letting your eyes adjust to the dark once you entered the sanctuary, moving slowly, and trusting that you would eventually be able to see well enough. Each year, this service was a touchstone for me, a place I longed for. A place where I could be free to let all my preteen and teenage feelings come to the surface. A place thanks to the darkness that no one could really notice if tears spilled over part of the time. It was my place to reflect on the hard parts of the story of Jesus, but also to grieve what was hard in my world and in the wider world, a place where those feelings were welcomed into my faith. And even though that service was in Lent, I’ve been thinking about it a good bit lately, since recently reading Richard Rohr’s words, Advent is a time to let “darkness do its work” in us.[i] I love that. Advent is a time to let “darkness do its work” in us. Though if I’m honest, I’m still working out what that really means.  

In worship here this season we’re on a journey to explore darkness and light and open ourselves up a bit in the way we think about them and use them.[ii] This isn’t a “throw everything out you’ve been doing” kind of thing, but an opportunity to loosen the soil around the ways we’ve packed things down when it comes to talking about darkness and light—putting them in competition with each other, seemingly insisting that one is only good and the other only bad. Though as conversation over the last week has already shown me, even when our language often leans toward simplicity, when it comes to our lives we already get (even if subconsciously) that the competition between light and darkness is a gross oversimplification. That is, if you were to sit down and think of light and darkness—literal light and darkness—in your life, in a day, you’d realize how much they co-exist, how much they even dance together to teach you things that already turn upside down any strict binary of good and bad.

During our Wednesday night chapel time this past week Debra Freeman shared some about her summer multi-day hiking trips and that every year she gets fresh batteries and puts them in her flashlight because if you’re camping overnight on the side of a mountain and you need to have a flashlight for something, you really need that flashlight to work. But here’s the surprising part. She rarely uses it. Almost never actually. Because when you do turn on that light in the middle of a dark night, your sphere of vision actually shrinks. To be sure, what’s in the path of the light is easily visible, but what you see is only what is in that cone of light. If instead of introducing in that bright light, you can forgo the flashlight and adjust to the darkness you’re in, you have a much wider sphere of awareness and a much more grounded experience.

Were we to take the time, my guess is it probably wouldn’t take long to find other examples where we up-end notions of light only good and darkness only bad—Light pollution, for example, when too much artificial light not only makes it difficult to see stars and planets in the night sky, but which is being shown to disrupt ecosystems and have a negative effect on the environment as well.

Still, we also know that there are times that aren’t really strictly darkness or light. Particular times of day fit this description—dusk, twilight, evening. These are times we would all recognize but that don’t really have a marker in place to say we’ve officially switched from day to night. I’ve always loved that though the Jewish Sabbath is said to begin at sundown, the rabbis of old deemed that it began when you could see three stars in the sky. And, beyond the literal, certain experiences also fall into this in-between space—somewhere that isn’t easily defined as light or dark but somewhere in-between. Liminal space many call it. And while it’s tempting just to think of it as “thin space” where the holy obviously is at hand, liminal space really has more of an edge. Liminal space can (and does) tend to dis-orient you before it eventually re-orients you. It’s still a place for the holy, but not necessarily one where you confidently feel that because, while it is an eventual place of transformation, it is usually first a place of not knowing.  

“Liminal” comes from the Latin word limin which means threshold. Liminal space is transitional space. Rohr calls it “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown.” Our old world has left us disoriented, but we are not yet sure of the new existence. Sound familiar to life these days? Rohr says liminal space is sacred space and that if we don’t encounter it in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. Think of this threshold as “God’s waiting room,” he says. “Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.”[iii] I love that as an Advent image, and it’s particularly helpful in the heartbreaking places in which we find ourselves in the world in these days. There is no doubt it’s vitally important not to be idealizing as “normal” much of what’s going on in our world these days—from family separation to white supremacy’s hold on us to LGBTQ lives at risk. But it can also be dis-orienting to try and find the best ways to help realize a new world.

That liminal space was definitely where Joseph was here at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Remember in Matthew’s gospel there is no visit of an angel to Mary. There is no Zechariah and Elizabeth. There isn’t even any stable. It’s just Joseph who—after the fact of Mary’s pregnancy not by him is established—gets the message in a dream that he is still to take her as his wife, that Mary’s child is of the Holy Spirit and that when he is born Joseph is to name him Jesus, or the “one who saves.” Though before we get too far back into his story, there is one thing that it’s important to know up front about Joseph. In fact, it’s the most important thing to know about him—that he’s a “righteous” man. Matthew tells us this before we ever hear of a dream because in Matthew being righteous is an extremely important thing. “It’s more than saying he was a member of the chamber of commerce or a really good ole boy. In Jewish term it’s saying he is bar-mitzvahed. He knows the commandments. He knows right from wrong. If you asked him what to do if an ox gores an ox, he could tell you. If you asked him about bearing false witness, he knows what to do. If you asked him what to do if your fiancé turns up pregnant by somebody else, he knows how to act.”[iv] Really she should have been stoned. Or at least publicly shamed. But Joseph is also a good man. He will follow the law with mercy and compassion and so he’ll just dismiss her quietly. He may be interpreting the law as gently as was possible, but knowing he was righteous, Matthew’s readers would have realized he was going to follow the law.

And then comes this dream. This dark of night guide in which he is invited to a new understanding of what is going on. An understanding which puts God at the center of changing—of transforming—what he thought was a clear matter under the law. And upon waking Joseph has to decide what faithfulness will mean for him now, something that if he does what the angel says will mean quite a shift in what he always thought faithfulness was.  

Have you ever had an experience in which your understanding of what was important or true or right—or how to go about deciding—shifted? Sometimes those experiences come clearly and with little room needed for discernment. Fred Craddock tells such a story about a friend of his who along with his family was under house arrest in China. One day the soldiers came in and said, “You can return to America.” They were celebrating when the soldiers then said, “You can take back 200 pounds with you.” Two hundred pounds seemed like hardly enough. They had lived there for years and couldn’t imagine what to leave behind. They got out the scales and the two children and two parents started the family arguments: “We must take this vase. This is a new typewriter. What about my books? (I relate to that one). What about this?  What about that?” They weighed everything and took it off. Weighed this and took it off, weighed this and finally, right on the dot, two hundred pounds.”  

            The soldier asked, “Ready to go?”


            “Did you weigh everything?”


            “You weighed the kids?”

            “No, we didn’t.”

            “Weigh the kids.”

In a singular moment, typewriter and vase and all became trash.  Trash.  What was truly important was clear.[v]  

Sometimes of course there are times you are searching for God’s way and find yourself moved to understand God in a new and deeper way, but one that it isn’t necessarily so clear. Suzanne Guthrie, an Episcopal priest in New York State, has a beautiful if challenging article on the presence of God’s love for her when each of her two children suffered separate potentially devastating medical crises. After writing of the helplessness of going through the two experiences she says: 

Grace and Jack did survive these traumas and I thankfully attributed healing to God. But my neighbor’s child of Grace’s age did not survive a similar illness. And when Jack and I left his corner hospital room with his head it’s normal shape again we left in that room another child still horribly deformed, tied to his crib. I know that the prayers of those other parents and children were not less worthy than mine. I am not ungrateful but I can’t forget the children who were left behind. I honestly do not know what my prayers or my love or my ministry would be like had I not carried my children out of the hospital corridors alive and whole. But I sensed at the time that God was present in death as well as in life. It was a love that was not contingent upon life or death. [Somehow I knew] God’s presence in the profound silence that exists beyond the senses, in the place where despair has obliterated ordinary prayer, when the prayerbook and psalms fail, and the words are stupid and meaningless, but not less so than my own words, and all that I can do from the godlessness of pain is invoke the silence itself. In that unconscious act, the veil of loneliness surrounding me becomes a mantle of dark and wordless love.  This darkness reveals the paradox of prayer:  In the absence of God, all there is, is God. [vi]  

I have to admit these are all words about God’s love and way that I’m still working out in my mind. Truthfully when I read things like this, I’m comforted by a favorite expression of Reinhold Niebuhr’s—I am “perplexed, but not unto despair.” That feels like a good way to refer to what it feels like to have to wrestle through some of the more challenging ways to open up my understanding of how God works in the world. And how I am to respond.

In truth, Joseph was challenged in a similar way. He is challenged to learn that “being truly righteous does not mean looking up a rule in a book and then doing the ‘right thing’; it means wrestling with the complexities of a problem, listening for the voice of God” or discerning the presence of God and then acting in response.[vii] It’s a radical shift, one that Matthew uses to set up the whole gospel. Which is why he stands Joseph here at the beginning. For Matthew’s readers Joseph himself is the liminal place. He is the connection between their old life following the law a certain way and their new life following Jesus. He is the prototype for true righteousness and faithful discipleship, though with him this gets a little more complicated. Because from here on out the answers for what to do aren’t as going to be as straightforward. They’ll take discernment and challenge sometimes, challenge to the very way you think God should act, which is perhaps the best description of what’s at the heart of this time of year, in which reality was turned upside down, in which surprise and confusion and perhaps most of all vulnerability were the announcements of God’s taking on flesh in the world. And, interestingly, Joseph’s life from then on shows us that obedience to living out God’s love doesn’t guarantee a smooth path. After Jesus’ birth, they have to flee Herod’s evil massacre of infants, heading to safety in Egypt until in another dream—he has 5 of them in Matthew—an angel tells him it is safe to return home.

To say that it’s not dangerous to follow our God, to say that Joseph gives us a clean beginning to this incarnation of God’s very own being into the world is to over sentimentalize this story. And if we did that, we would miss what the story has to teach us. That being saved isn’t about being made comfortable or getting a smooth life. It’s a life that shows an alternate reality where God’s love shows up where we’d least expect it. Seems a fitting beginning of the life of one who will challenge the lies that hold us down, who will be a truth-teller about the ways of the world and who will bring new life in places we would never expect.

Advent is our liminal space—our place in both darkness and light—where it’s safe to feel the world’s disorientation—so we can prepare for how to make it new, how to move forward. The good news is that letting go to risk life with this God will lead us to the place where when we least expect it, God’s very being enters in to our lives, into the liminal space, into the messy circumstances and grief and confusion where we live, bringing a new way forward.  

Walter Brueggemann says that this time of year we should never try to explain this story.  We should just let it amaze us. And how amazing it is. That embryo Jesus was already causing scandal and that “vulnerability to mere flesh; vulnerability to the law; vulnerability to death: these will be the signs of the power of this One coming in, [perhaps even] the signs of God’s confidence in us, in how we will respond and what we can become, in what God can make of us and what God dreams we can be.”[viii] May it be so.

Dorisanne Cooper is pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.

[i] Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation Daily Meditation; December 1, 2019.

[ii] At Watts Street this Advent we’re following the texts and topics of Illustrated Ministry’s “In Light and Darkness” devotions. See

[iii] Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation Daily Meditation; July 7, 2016.

[iv] Thomas G. Long, “The Crisis, Wilderness, Blessing and Decision,” lecture at the Festival of Homiletics, May 2004, Washington DC.

[v] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, eds; (Chalice Press: St. Louis, MO, 2001) , 22-23.

[vi] Suzanne Guthrie, “Love transcends life and death,” The Living Pulpit, Volume 1, No. 3, July-September 1992, 40.

[vii] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Westminster/John Knox: Louisville, KY, 1997) 14.

[viii] James Allison, “Reading the Signs,” The Christian Century, December 11, 2007, p. 18.  Language for God edited.  Also, I’m grateful to John Shea’s writing for introducing me to the embryo Jesus’ scandal causing ways.