in-between places: gates, doorways, and thresholds

Matte Downey, Jun 6, 2018, 8:30 PM
Matte Downey

We go through doorways and openings every day, stepping across thresholds as we do, and seldom think much about it. But thresholds and doorways and gates are significant places, liminal spaces which tie two realms together. Thresholds are places of transition and decision. They are entrances and openings to new worlds, offering promise and invitation, but they are also places of ambiguity and disorientation. Open the door of your warm, cozy home during a blistering blizzard in the dead of winter and you know what I mean. Or step through the doorway of a plane after you land in a foreign country and you know the feeling.

Gates are important places in the biblical text. We read about certain events happening "in the gate." This makes little sense unless we know something about ancient cities. A city usually had a wall around it and where there was a gate into the city, an outer gate would be built around it, providing a second line of defence. Between the inner and the outer gates was a space or small yard which served as a gathering spot. Kings or judges or elders would sit here to "hold court." Hence, the word courtyard. "In the gates" was a place of justice, a place where agreements were made, where announcements were proclaimed, where counsel was given. Abraham bought a plot of land for Sarah's tomb by negotiating with the Hittites "in the gate" (Genesis 23). Boaz attained the legal right to marry Ruth by speaking to his kinsman in the presence of the city elders at the gate (Ruth 4). In Amos 5, we read the proclamation of the prophet: "Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate."

Doorways are significant in biblical stories as well. I have been reading the story of Joseph again and this time my attention was drawn to the scene where Joseph's brothers are at the doorway to the Egyptian viceroy's house and they hesitate. They have no idea that the high-ranking official is their long-lost brother whom they betrayed and sold into slavery. They have no idea whether the man means them well or intends to harm them. All they know is that the silver they brought to Egypt in order to pay for the grain found its way back into their sacks and now it appears that they are thieves. One of their brothers is already in prison in Egypt, being held until they can prove they are honest men and not spies. Things are not looking good. They are unsure about what awaits them in the house of the viceroy, so they pause at the doorway and plead their innocence to the steward, insisting that they are trustworthy men. The steward reassures them and tells them that there is no need to worry or be afraid (Genesis 43).

Once the brothers walk through the doorway, their lives change. Their past betrayal is exposed and their lies laid bare. They are given a chance to repent for the horrible mistreatment of their brother over twenty years ago. They are forgiven and reunited as a family. They are offered hospitality, invited to move their entire households to Egypt so that all will have enough to eat during the famine. But at the doorway, all was ambiguous. At the doorway, they both feared for their lives and hoped all would turn out well.

In John 20, we read another story about hesitating at the threshold. It is the first day of the week, just after Jesus has been brutally executed, and Mary of Magdala is visiting his tomb. She comes running to tell two of the disciples that someone has taken Jesus's body. Peter and the other disciple immediately run toward the tomb. The other disciple gets there first and stops at the threshold of the cave. He looks but does not go in. Peter catches up and enters the tomb, finding the linen grave clothes lying there, but no body. "Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed" (John 20. NRSV). It seems likely that the other disciple, John, knew the import of the moment. Once he stepped into the tomb, he was committed. Once he saw, he had to respond. To embrace the mystery of the resurrection was risky. The disciple hesitated, but then he stepped through the threshold and became a witness to the risen Christ.

Gates are places of justice where things are made right. Doorways are places of reckoning and restoration. Thresholds are places of faith, invitations to step into the mystery. But gates are also places of safety and protection. In a conversation with the Jews and the religious leaders, Jesus states: "I am the Gate for the sheep. ... I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for - will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of" (John 10, The Message). As the gate, Jesus is the defender of the weak, the protector of the vulnerable, the one who cares for the needs of the flock. But Jesus (as the gate) is also a liminal space, located between two worlds. Through Jesus, we move from fear to hope, from betrayal to faithfulness, from loneliness to community, from unbelief to trust, from what is familiar and safe to what is unfamiliar and risky. Jesus is located at the very point of transition and transformation, the place where we step out of the old and into the new. And this place where fear and hope coexist, where confusion and expectancy intermingle, where doubt and promise cohabit, this is the place where Jesus is to be found.

Don't be afraid of the in-between place. Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the doorway. Jesus is the threshold. Come.

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