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Bare Branches

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

Ah, bare branches! It is that time of year again. The trees have shed their showy foliage and are stripped bare, their delicate lacework beautiful against the winter sky. It is December, it is Advent, it is the time of stripping down. Time to empty ourselves, to prepare for the fullness of God that is to come.

Lately I have been studying Hebrew again, renewing my rusty skills down in the Beit Midrash. I am no scholar, but I come away from each session deeply moved by the Scripture. Unlike Greek, the tongue into which these texts were translated for the early Christians, Hebrew is not an exact language. There is so much subtlety, so much mystery, so much space for interpretation. Reading the Scriptures in Hebrew reminds me again of the mysteries of God, and the limitations of human language. There are words, and there are the spaces between the words. There are words, and there is the Word. They are not exactly the same thing.

In Advent, we are called to take time out of our busyness to look at the spaces between the words. The sky between the bare branches. The silence in our own hearts. It is a hard thing to do, for noisy Christians, when the world around us is filled with clamor and music and ho-ho-hos. It requires some discipline, and some holding back. It calls us to carve out an empty place in the midst of a too-full season. In the wilderness a voice cries out. In the emptiness a spark is kindled. In the silence of the womb a new life stirs.

It is Advent, the time of preparation for Christ's coming. Will we be ready? For when Christ comes, he may not come with bells and carols. He may slip into our world quietly in the stillness of a winter's night; in the face of a shivering child; in the whisper of those too hungry to speak. Will we even notice? Will we be ready? Will our lives be too noisy, our hearts too full to make room?

"Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find a mansion prepared for himself....Amen."