My namesake, St. Peter, has long been portrayed as the one who welcomes people to the imagined “pearly gates” of heaven. So, I can’t help but think of St. Peter and those heavenly gates when I open the gate at Manna House each morning to let our guests in for hospitality.
The whole “pearly gates” image comes from Revelation 21:21 which poetically describes the gates of the “new Jerusalem come down from heaven.” In this city, God “will wipe away every tear” and “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
When I open the gate, the sharing of hospitality begins. Volunteers and guests welcome each other. We pray together. Then as guests wait for their names to be called for the showers or socks and hygiene, coffee and water are served, we share stories, jokes are told, and news is passed along.
This past week was the Feast of Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez. For years he served as the doorkeeper in a Jesuit community in Spain. Of St. Alphonsus it is said, “he encountered God in each person who passed through his open door. He performed his tasks with such infinite love that the act of opening the door became a sacramental gesture” (Ellsberg, All Saints).
A sacramental gesture means a sacred sign of the loving presence of God, one that reflects the life of Jesus. In this case, Jesus initiates this sacrament when he says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and those who seek find, and to those who knock, it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
When I open the gate (or the door) at Manna House as a sacramental gesture, I seek to welcome each person as bringing the presence of God. I often fail. And I know how far what I do is from the welcome offered at the pearly gates. Death still haunts our guests (as it does all of us). Mourning and tears and pain are still near and sure to come again. A sacramental gesture points to but is not the full reality. The gate to Manna House is not the pearly gates. I am not St. Peter. And as I say to our guests from time to time, “Knock and it will be opened to you, if we are open, ask and you shall receive, if we have it to give and your name is on the list.”
But to offer this sign, this hint of heaven is not nothing either. When along with other volunteers I offer this sign, and guests accept what is offered, we all share in a reality stronger than death, stronger than each one of us in our brokenness, our tears, mourning, sickness, and pain. We share in the reality of God’s loving welcome that gives hope to our lives, causes gates and doors to be opened, and the goods of God’s creation to be shared. The truth is, when I open the gate, the guests welcome me as much as I welcome them, we enter together into God’s hospitality, and heaven draws near.