by Kellie Brown
I have been thinking recently about doors and thresholds — these structures in our lives that mark our comings and goings as well as our boundaries. In 2020 as the world was upended by a pandemic, we needed to be more mindful of our comings and goings, often choosing to be sequestered behind closed doors rather than risking what lay beyond. Doors and thresholds also represent more than just the literal architecture through which we enter and exit. They signify places of transition — beginnings and endings, paths that we choose to walk down or that we opt to veer away from.
The Old Testament contains many references to gateways, doorways, and thresholds, including the dramatic Exodus story in which God instructed the enslaved Israelites in Egypt to apply blood to the entranceway of their homes for protection from the coming plague that would kill all the first born. But often, the evocation of threshold imagery comes in a less sensational fashion as an instructive about living in communion with the divine. The writer of Proverbs even delivers the promise of a blessing for those who remain focused on God’s entry points.
Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors. (Proverbs 8:34)
Jesus also used the analogy of the door in his teachings to explain his positional role that provides us with divine access, sustenance, and protection.
Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:7-10)
Jesus relied on images that were familiar and relevant to his listeners, and the symbolism surrounding doorways has supplied meaning for many cultures. In ancient Rome, the god Janus was thought to protect doorways and gateways. Depictions of Janus portrayed the deity with two faces that looked in both directions in order to watch a person’s entering and exiting, their beginnings and endings. That association is, of course, where the name for the first month of our calendar year, January, derives. The ancient Celtic ritual of “first-footing” may also share some connection. Still practiced in Scotland and parts of northern England, this ritual for celebrating the dawn of the New Year involves the careful selection of the first person, a “first-foot,” who will cross the threshold of your home just after midnight as a bringer of good luck and prosperity for the coming year.
Today, tangible symbols still adorn some doorways, summoning us to be mindful of our comings and goings. The entryways of many Jewish homes have a mezuzah affixed to the doorpost. Defined by both its decorative case and the Torah-inscribed scroll held within, the mezuzah reminds those who live in the household of their covenant with God. Especially important are these key verses recorded on that scroll.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
The presence of a mezuzah also signals to all visitors who enter that this is a home that adheres to the beliefs and practices of Judaism, including the fulfillment of this commandment from that same chapter of Deuteronomy.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
The placement of a physical object to mark the entranceway is not limited to Jewish culture. Sometimes practitioners of Eastern religion position a Buddha statue facing the door. Some Christians hang a cross beside or above the doorway, while others participate in the Epiphany ritual of “chalking the door,” which involves writing an equation-like formula in chalk on the lintel to represent the new calendar year and the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat: “May Christ bless the house.” Although each of these practices varies greatly, what they share is the belief that the thresholds of our homes and lives are meaningful enough to deserve special attention.
Ultimately, I believe the most significant aspect of the gateway symbol comes from its role in discerning spiritual direction, specifically how the tending of our thresholds allows us to remain open to the moving of the Spirit. Communing with God in prayer, practicing love for our neighbors, seeking out the means of grace, and caring for God’s creation are all ways to maintain our spiritual threshold so that it remains swept clean of debris and distractions. A well-tended threshold attunes us to the steering of the Holy Spirit so that we know when to leave a particular path or to start down a new one. Beginnings and Endings. Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega.
And with the crossing of new thresholds comes transformation. In the Bible, we sometimes see transformation occur in dramatic ways such as in the stories of the Samaritan woman at the well and Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. History also bears witness to life-changing moments.
On July 17, 2020, the celebrated Civil Rights leader and congressman John Lewis joined the “so great a cloud of witnesses.” As a young man in 1965, he had led the march from Selma, Alabama, which crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This was not a journey to undertake lightly. Police viciously attacked Lewis and the more than 600 peaceful marchers with him, leaving that day known as Bloody Sunday. I watched on television as the horse-drawn carriage bearing Lewis’s flag-draped coffin crossed over that same bridge one final time, and I wept. I felt the urge to stand up in my own living room because passing by was a person of incredible integrity and courage who had walked through a transformational gateway, and we have never been the same.
Not all spiritual doorways offer the promise of sudden transformation or hand us clearly labeled road maps. We may long to open the door of C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe to emerge in the fantastical land of Narnia, but more often our pathways unfold gradually. We stumble through missteps and lose our way, pausing to reorient with the divine compass. Sometimes we wait in liminal spaces, not yet discerning the direction, and we do the necessary work of tending our thresholds. And through the entire journey, this wonderful promise from Jesus keeps us company.
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
Dr. Kellie Brown is a violinist, conductor, music educator, and award-winning writer whose book, The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation during the Holocaust and World War II (McFarland Publishing, 2020), received one of the Choice Outstanding Academic Titles awards. Her words have appeared in Earth & Altar, Calla Press, The Primer, and Musing as well as in numerous academic journals such as the American String Teacher. She has forthcoming essays in Psaltery & Lyre, Ekstasis, and Writerly Magazine, and a book chapter for Oxford University Press. She is a certified lay minister in the United Methodist Church and currently serves at First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport, TN. More information about her and her writing can be found at www.kelliedbrown.com.