Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent
The main interior doors of our church were “sealed” before Mass with a rope across them and a sign posted asking people to use the side aisle doors for this weekend. After the homily, the hymn “Theres a Wideness in God’s Mercy” was sung and a prayer blessing God for the symbol of church doors was prayed at the doors asking that parishioners who walk through them would always remember they were crossing over a threshold from the world of death into a place where the mercy of God is encountered in the sacraments. This was done to help people understand the significance of the opening of the “Holy Door” at St. Peter’s in Rome that inaugurated the beginning of the Holy Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis the previous Tuesday, and the “holy doors” that have been designated by Bishop Braxton throughout the Diocese of Belleville where a plenary indulgence may be gained without traveling to Rome.
Usually, people don’t pay too much attention to doors. In everyday life, people don’t usually notice the doors they walk in and out of. What’s the big deal about a door? A door is a necessary part of our buildings; a way to get in and out. Folks don’t pay a lot of attention to doors until they can’t get through the doorway! When the key to the house is locked inside and the owner is locked out, then doors are noticed! Or when people arrive at church to find that the door they usually go through to get to their pew is blocked by rope and a sign is posted “Please, use side aisle entrance.” Then a doorway gets noticed. So you’re probably asking what’s going on, Father? Why couldn’t we get into church like usual, today/tonight?
Let’s just say I wanted you to notice the doors of our church. I wanted at least some of our congregation tonight/today to be shaken out of routine so that we all might reflect on the symbolism of a church door, in particular the “Holy Door” that Pope Francis opened at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome last Tuesday to begin the Holy Year of Mercy. Throughout the world, and here in our own diocese, doors in certain churches are being designated “Holy Doors” as part of the Holy Year of Mercy so that members of the church that can not travel in pilgrimage to Rome can still journey to a special place to walk through a “Holy Door.” Making pilgrimage to church with a Holy Door is a way to encounter God’s mercy that Pope Francis is asking all Catholics to focus on throughout the Holy Year. (By the way, our doors are not one of these designated sites for pilgrimage, but I wanted them to be symbolically “sealed” to make a visual point with my teaching today. A list of “holy door” sites was given you in the bulletin last week and will be posted on our parish web-site.)
So let’s ponder the symbolism of doorways for a moment! Doors are something we pass through many times a day. They don’t seem that important. Yet on a deeper level a doorway is a threshold to another reality. Thresholds like a door demarcate a division of space. Before we go through a door we are in one space or room and then on the other side of the door, we’re in another room. Or, on one side of a building’s exterior door you’re “inside” and on the other side you’re “outside” (yet, you could say going out a door of a building you enter the great outdoors!) A door threshold is a kind of boundary between two places, or even two kinds of existence.
Do you remember? Maybe not so much now-a-days, but it used to be a custom for a groom to carry his new bride across the threshold of the front door of their new home. People understood the gesture of carrying the woman through the doorway to mean this couple had left their single lives of being someone’s children in their parent’s home to enter a new reality where as bride and groom they set up a new home. Crossing the threshold was the beginning of their reality as husband and wife, in a new home where children would call them by new names, mom and dad.
The doors of this “House of the church” can carry the same weight of meaning. On one side of the door is an old way of life. Inside the door a new way of existing is celebrated. That’s why certain rituals of the church are done “at the door.” When a child is brought to be baptized, the priest greets the infant at the door of the church. By baptism the baby will passover from the world of death and enter the halls of heaven in baptism. Greeting the child at the door we visually say you’re crossing over from the world of death “out there” to the life of Heaven we experience “in here” around the banquet table of life. This profound truth of our being united to the Body of Christ is repeated at funerals. The bodies of the dead are met at the door. Before the body passes through the door it is clothed in a white garment that reminds the living our deceased were clothed with life in Christ in baptism and now they will pass through the gates of heaven. In here the Mass anticipates the banquet of life of the new room the deceased has entered, heaven. Perhaps, not everyone can see a ritual done at the doors of our church, but those who are the primary participants are invited to experience the mystery being enacted, the baptized are able to pass from one kind of life “out there” to a new kind of life celebrated and made real just across the threshold of dying with Christ. On a deeper level a doorway is a threshold to another reality.
In the Gospel of John Jesus refers to himself as the Sheep-gate. The Sheep must go past him to get out of the sheep-pen to eat in the pasture. A gate is another kind of door. Jesus is the door through which we must pass to get to eternal life. Jesus is the way into a life of peace among humanity. Jesus is the door that opens to reveal God’s mercy-full love for men and women that redeems us from sin, the door that opens up to the possibility of the banquet hall where death is not invited.
This is why Pope Francis opening a door in Rome, to inaugurate a Year of Mercy is such a big deal. The Holy door at St. Peter’s in Rome and the doors of all churches throughout the world remind us that God wants us to come into God’s heart and know how much we are loved. By walking through the door of a church we say we accept Jesus as our redeemer, that he is the door into God’s new home is prepared for us where nothing we’ve done can destroy us or separate us from God. This is the purpose of the Holy Year and Holy Doors in the mind of our Holy Father, that we might discover anew that we loved by a merciful God.
But, here’s the deal. Listen to the words of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. John was leading people through a symbolic ritual, too. He didn’t open a door. John’s symbolic gesture was to give people a bath in river water. The bath was like a door though. The baptism of John was a sign that those washed in the Jordan River were stepping out of one kind of life and entering a new relationship with God. The subjects of John’s baptism were saying I choose to live in a new reality, where God’s law comes first. People, wanting practical suggestions for how to live on this side of the threshold they had passed through in the Jordan asked John, “What shall we do now that we’re living in a new identity, new way of life dedicated to God, rejecting the past?” And John said, “Put into practical action what you say you want, to live God’s rule! Be people of peace, not violence.” Those who walk through any church’s door are expected to repent, too, to walk out the door changed by the Love of God experienced in the church’s sacraments. As Pope Francis is encouraging those who seek the release of temporal punishment for our sins (a plenary indulgence) by walking through a door called “Holy,” go and practice corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Help people cross over, in this world, the threshold from an existence of woe and suffering to a life where peace and comfort are possible. Then will God’s mercy be Good News to the world.
This is the cause of our joy this “rejoice Sunday” of the season of Advent! Jesus is the presence of God who has come into our midst with Good News and has opened the door of salvation! God doesn’t punish those who open their hearts to his mercy, he rejoices (c.f. first reading) we had the courage to admit our wrong and welcomes us with love, a love that will open the doors of the perfect life of heaven. He loves with a mercy that enables us to live even now on this side of the threshold of eternity in his presence in this building and as his presence in the world beyond our church doors.
A RITE OF RECALLING THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DOORS OF A CHURCH prepared by the author
At the end of the homily Father Joe will ask the assembly to face the doors of the church and sing;
There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy – Verse 1
(During the first verse, priest (& deacon) process to the main interior padded doors of the church.)
At the door (Adapted from Liturgical Gestures, Words, Objects by E. Bernstein and used in the Diocese of Belleville training of Lay presiders for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest)
Deacon / Reader:
I am the door.
Front doors, back doors,
sliding doors, revolving doors,
barn doors, garage doors,
glass doors, wooden doors, screen doors,
yes, and more.
I am the door. All who enter through me will be saved.
Porta coeli – Jesus door.
I am the door;
all who enter through me will be saved
and will go in and out and find pasture.
Enter by the narrow door.
Enter by the Jesus door,
Through the heaven-earthly door.
Prayer Blessing God
Adapted from the Book of Blessings, Blessing of church doors and the prayer said by Pope Francis before opening the Holy Door of St. Peter.
Let us pray.
Blessed are you, Lord, holy Father,
who sent your Son into the world
to reveal your omnipotence above all in mercy and forgiveness,
by the shedding of his blood,
grant that we might live a year of grace,
a fitting time to love you and our brothers and sisters
in the joy of the Gospel.
Continue to pour out on us your Holy Spirit,
that we might never tire of turning with trust
to the gaze of him who we have pierced,
your Son made man,
the shining face of your endless mercy,
the safe refuge for all of us sinners in need of pardon and peace,
of the truth that frees and saves.
He is the Door,
through which we come to you,
the inexhaustible source of consolation for all,
beauty that never sets,
the perfect joy of life without end.
Grant that your faithful may pass through the doors of our church,
and be welcomed into your presence,
so that they may experience, O Father, your abundant mercy
whenever we gather to for the Eucharist,
the Sacrament of Reconciliation
and all the sacraments we celebrate in this house of the church.
Through Christ our Lord.
As the doors are opened and deacon and priest return to sanctuary the assembly sings
There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy – Verse 2 & 3