This blog is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Advent 2022 series.
Michelle Burkholder is the associate pastor at Hyattsville (Maryland) Mennonite Church. A graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, Michelle went on to study art and theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. The connections between art, faith and spirituality fill Michelle with wonder, curiosity and joy.
One of the tasks of in-person pastoring that I missed the most during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was visiting and holding newborn babies. It seems like a small thing, and while the babies usually are quite small, having the opportunity to cradle a tiny child in one’s arms, welcome them to the community and offer them quiet blessings, while giving tired caretakers a moment of rest is a tremendously meaningful activity. The newness of life in these moments is a wondrous mystery.
During Advent, we find ourselves waiting, once again, for the celebration of the birth of the Christ-child. A celebration of joyful imagination and the possibilities that come forth as we embrace another wondrous mystery. The mystery of Emmanuel: God with us.
Times of waiting can challenge and change us.
We sometimes wait with anxiety — uncertain or actively worried about what might come next. We sometimes wait with anticipation — excited by, and perhaps even impatient for, the arrival of whatever it is we are waiting for. Whether we wait in a spirit of tension or acceptance, waiting is a liminal space — a threshold between what has been and what is becoming.
The mysterious gift of Emmanuel, God with us, is just that! God is with us in the midst of all of the spaces, times of waiting, feelings and experiences we journey with and through in this life. This is a God of presence and relationship, who is with us in what is and working in and through us towards what is becoming.
When we lean toward the presence of Emmanuel, God with us, we are leaning toward love — a love that surrounds us with compassion, comfort, goodness, courage, and a desire for justice and transformation. This is God’s love in action.
God’s love is creative, collaborative and expansive.
A source of comfort and stability, and also a springboard for action and change. God’s love accompanies us through what is and invites us towards the work of imagination and possibility that can bring forth new ways of being and living love into the world.
Early this year, I had the opportunity to join in a collaborative, creative process with Joanna Harader, the pastor of Peace Mennonite Church, in Lawrence, Kansas. Joanna was working at writing an Advent devotional, which has been published as the book “Expecting Emmanuel” (published by Herald Press). During her creative process, Joanna reached out to me, wondering if I might be interested in creating some visual art, in response to some of her written words. Having long admired Joanna’s writings and approach to scriptural exploration, I excitedly said, “Yes!”
As she would finish writing them, Joanna sent me copies of the blessings she wanted me to respond to visually. I would read through each blessing, sit with it for a period of time and, then, set to work exploring the essence of the blessing, through lines, shapes and images. I remember moments of being overwhelmed, as I would sketch, trying to balance the literal imagery that Joanna’s words produce with a visual exploration of the emotions and experiences the blessings offer. In some cases, the resulting visual composition contains literal imagery from the blessing or underlying story from Scripture. In other cases, the results are much more abstract — lines and shapes that, perhaps, hint at something concrete, while also making space for imagination.
When all the blessings had been edited and the artwork completed, it was a marvel to pair the two side by side — blessing and image — and to experience them in relationship with each other. The blessings, on their own, are a gift of words, offering courage, healing and an invitation to action. The visual artworks are their own sort of gift of imagery, composition, and an invitation to connection and curiosity. When the two independent creations were placed in relationship with each other, it opened up a new experience for each. The images, informed by the words, and the words, accompanied by the images, each took on a newness. The relationship between them opened an expansive experience beyond the capacity of words or image alone.
This is the kind of expansive experience we are invited into in our living when we wait for, remember and lean toward Emmanuel, God with us.
When we live with love, we showcase the best of who we are, while also making space, in and through relationships, for that love to flow into expansive and transformative acts of mercy, justice and presence. This is God’s creative, collaborative and expansive love in action. It is ever present with us and in the world, and it thrives and offers newness of life again and again, when we join in living out love in the world.
During Advent, we wait. May we wait with anticipation and expectation, remembering that the Emmanuel, God with us, we actively await is already among us, gifting us with love and inviting us into the work of justice, joy and expansiveness, made possible when we lean in with love.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
Interested in submitting a blog for Menno Snapshots? Please see our blog guidelines here.