Lift Up Your Heads Oh You Gates!
We have a conflicted relationship with Christmas. We often manage bits of Advent, but in the rush at the end of the year are still surprised by Christmas. We get some of the chores done, and always manage to bring out the Christmas music, but much goes undone. In addition to the busyness, we are skeptical of many of the stories and traditions of Christmas and doubtful that any of them can grasp the mystery without leading us astray. And still we manage to find, or stumble upon, times when Advent and Christmas break through.
On Christmas Eve, it is good for my heart to hang ornaments on what passes for a tree in our little house, and to decorate the rooms with the Christmas paraphernalia we have collected. And on most Christmas Eves, we will spend some time sitting in our living room reading and chatting after the Christmas Eve service. We will have eaten something festive, there will be candles burning, and the Bach Christmas Oratorio will be on the stereo. We will be surrounded by a variety of manger scenes that we place around the living room or hang on the tree. We are beginning to have a collection of these.
But our most treasured manger scene is still hidden. It is in an honored corner on a table decked like an altar and is enclosed within the robes of a large wooden angel standing on a pedestal. The angel, with wings outspread, looks quizzically at us, its head cocked to one side. With its unnaturally long hands it both welcomes and blesses us. Below, carved into its voluminous robes, are two doors on hinges. The angel is, I sometimes think, smiling.
And behind the doors is a beautifully carved manger scene. But until late Christmas night the doors are fast shut. As I anticipate their opening, they seem in my imagination to shimmer and pulse with the presence behind them. And as they tremble with light, I hear these words:
Lift up your heads, O you gates;
Yes, lift them up, you everlasting doors:
And the King of glory will come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
He is the King of glory.
(Psalm 24: 9-10)
Trumpets! Cymbals! Drums! Dancing and leaping! The King of Glory is come. The largest of royal gates seem too small to give entry to this infinite numinous power. They are transformed and stretch upward, bulge outward streaming light.
What is my anticipation? Who is this King of Glory? Oddly, when we open the doors, our royal guest is an infant. And the child comes in the most astonishing and appropriate way, borne by a mother in pain and hope, born in poverty, bound to a life of wandering and homelessness. In our manger scene, the doors carved in the angel are primitive wood.
Today, on Christmas Day, we begin the 12 Days of Christmas. The journey we have chosen for these days is to visit the various rooms of a monastery and use them to explore the ways we open our hearts to the mystery of incarnation. We will seek lessons from these rooms to help us build a monastery in our hearts during the Christmas season.
The first room we encounter is the gate of the monastery, where all guests are welcomed. It is at this gate where others are greeted and welcomed, and where decisions are made and implemented about whom we will invite in. In many western cultures, we even have mats at the door that say WELCOME — thus we presume a good reception at the door. But St. Benedict sees the front gate of the monastery in much more complex terms than one finds on today’s welcome mats.
It is at this gate where others are greeted
and welcomed, and where decisions
are made and implemented
about whom we will invite in.
St. Benedict lived in Rome as a student around 500 CE, before he embarked on his monastic career, and long before he wrote about the tasks and character of the person who keeps the front gate of the monastery. In the Rome of his day, one could find mosaics at the doorway that said “HAVE” or “welcome” in Latin. But one could also find on the threshold the evil eye, or scorpions, or other symbols to ward off evil. A favorite was the snake-haired Gorgon, staring directly at the visitor, and set in a dizzying mosaic pattern meant to induce the kind of hypnotic gaze that was said to turn you to stone.
In the society of Benedict’s time and in our own, the front door is a place not just for welcome, but also for discernment and decision. Indeed, at every gate, the internet, television, telephone, mailbox, one must discern who should be welcomed and who should be turned away. This discernment is a difficult task, and requires of the door attendant a wise heart and a diplomatic character that St. Benedict describes in his rule.
This discernment is a difficult task,
and requires of the door attendant
a wise heart and a diplomatic character...
But on Christmas eve, and Christmas morning, we know well enough who stands at the gate and knocks. At least we think we know. Still, we fear that the gate of our heart will need too much modification for this unearthly child to enter. It is always dangerous to entertain royalty. Our first response might be to ask for a delay, a little time so we can first accomplish some renovation of the gates, clean things up a bit. Find some more room for the child’s entourage. How shall we welcome all these demanding guests?
And, still, we are drawn, even tempted, to open the door . The Sufi poet, Rumi, has told us what to do with “messengers from beyond.” We should meet them at the door laughing, though they may discomfit us, and even sweep our house clean. This Christmas day is the day for that discernment. We should not wait. We do not need to get ready. The infinite divine gives itself to us, seeks us, comes as a little child. We can welcome this child.
On Christmas day, or whenever you read this, you have already chosen to open the door, to welcome the messenger from beyond, this infinite, little child who may soon sweep your house clean. You have opened the door simply by reading this blog post. By this small decision, as small as the many imperceptible choices you make every day, you are opening the gate within yourself to Christmas.
May Christmas find you where you are.
At the Gate:
What important discernment faces you? What will you allow to enter? What will you help to exit?