Guests constantly come and go through the Manna House front door during a morning of hospitality. Anchoring the door and the entire front entrance is the threshold, a slightly cracked and massive piece of concrete. This threshold has been crossed about a million times in the fourteen years Manna House has been open. I have probably crossed the threshold nearly 40,000 times myself.
Despite this heavy traffic, it is easy to not notice this threshold. It is nothing fancy and it is low to the ground; not even in the usual line of sight. But in this season of Advent, I need to pay attention to what a threshold means.
Biblically, the Hebrew root meaning for threshold, gate or door is “caphaph” which means “to snatch away or terminate.” The other word for threshold is “pethen” which means “to twist as a snake.” It appears a threshold is a dangerous place. Why? Because it signals change. As one biblical commentator, Barbara Yoder, explained: “Gates [or thresholds] are where we win or lose. … The threshold is where we either leap forward or back out.” The Bible points to a question as I approach Advent’s threshold, do I give allegiance to the way things are or do I seek to be faithful to God’s way?
Two other commentators on the meaning of threshold, Frederick and Mary Ann Brusatt describe the threshold as, “a crossing-over place that signifies transformation and that can be scary or soul-stirring.” And they continue, “Thresholds also invite us to practice hospitality. Consider the situation at borders throughout our world. They are often tense places where peoples and cultures intermingle, sometimes creatively and other times with hatred and hostility. St. Benedict advised monks to greet strangers with love, knowing that in them resides the presence of Christ.”
Crossing the threshold at Manna House, I meet Christ in the guests who also cross the threshold. I can tell you the transformation I have experienced crossing this threshold is both scary and soul-stirring. Scary because I know I often fail to treat Christ very well. I am too quick to judge, too suspicious, too busy, too afraid to be able to hear and understand and respond with compassion. When I cross the threshold of Manna House, I am invited to an Advent of preparing for Christ who came not only as an infant threatened by poverty and persecution, but also comes in each and every person “made strange,” dehumanized, and subjected to death-dealing exclusion.
Crossing the threshold is also soul-stirring. I have been brought to my knees in lamentation by Christ in the guests. I have seen their suffering and so many have been lost to death, crucified by neglect, rejection, systemic racism and poverty. Yet crossing this threshold is also soul-stirring because it is here that the guests have taught me the truth that though the darkness of these evils does not go away in this life, still as John’s Gospel says, “the light shines on inside of the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it” (1:5).
This light illuminates the truth from Psalm 84:10, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”
When I stand at the threshold of the house of God, I stand with those excluded from the buildings and institutions of the powerful. I am called by God to enter into solidarity with and welcome those who are kept out and dismissed with disdain.
In their essay on the threshold, the Brusatt’s refer to the traditional Christian monastic practice of “statio.” In this practice, “the monk or nun enters the church or chapel but pauses first at the threshold to shed any burdens, agitations, and distractions which might get in the way of being truly present to God.”
As I cross the threshold at Manna House, I am invited to practice this “statio.” I need to prepare myself to receive each guest as Christ. I need to practice a dangerous and different threshold vision in which those pushed away are welcomed in. I need to replace in my head and my heart all of those derogatory names from the dominant culture that play upon stereotypes of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, with actual names of persons made in the image of God. I need to cross what Abraham Joshua Heschel describes as “the threshold of repentance, of unbearable realization of our own vanity and frailty and the terrible relevance of God.”
Crossing this Advent threshold points to the joy of Christmas, when God in Jesus graciously opens the door to each of us to cross the threshold of God’s house and enter into life, love, and liberation.