Every morning one of the first things I do is to open the next door on my Advent Calendar. As a ‘non-chocolate’ eater I go for the conventional kind, a nativity scene, not too much glitter and I don’t need any gimmick behind the doors. I love counting towards Christmas in this way. It also has the effect of panicking me in a way because I realise that December is fast moving on and I am no way ready for Christmas – not in a spiritual sense, that’s an on-going problem – but in the practical ‘heck when am I going to do the shopping’ sense.
We often read, at this time of the year, from the Book of Revelation. There’s a great deal that challenges the reader or listener in that book but there are also wonderful verses that really do speak to people. One I was thinking of was that verse from Revelation 3.20.
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
Its from one of the letters to the Seven Churches and was an inspiration to William Holman Hunt who from 1851-53 painted one of the most famous Victorian religious pictures, ‘The Light of the World’ which hangs in Keble College Chapel, Oxford. A larger version is in St Paul’s Cathedral and another in Manchester. It was hugely popular in its day and I believe it remains so.
Christ, looking at us, holding a lantern, is knocking on a door. It is overgrown, obviously not a well used door and there is no handle on the side on which Christ stands. He is dependent on the person on the other side of the door to open it. This is a gracious Jesus and his face radiates love and mercy. It is beautiful, if a little over-reproduced. But look at it again, with fresh eyes and it says a great deal to us.
Today I’ve been at the opening of a door. The Roman Catholic Cathedrals in England and Wales have been encouraged to have a Holy Door for this Year of Mercy which Pope Francis inaugurated last week as he opened the Porta Sancta at St Peter’s in Rome. Since the last Holy Year that door has been bricked up, inaccessible, unusable. It can only be opened when the bricks are removed, the key recovered and the Pope opens it.
So I went to our local Roman Catholic Cathedral, St George’s Southwark, to be there as the Archbishop opened the door. The door had to be opened so that we could pass through it.
Like the door in Holman Hunt’s picture we have to open that door, the church has to hear the call of Christ and respond by taking down what restricts its opening, by taking the key and letting Christ in. And for this year it is the Christ of mercy who is knocking.
What the Pope has done was so timely. There is a need for mercy. The response to so many situations is less than merciful, mercy can seem in short supply.
William Blake wrote a poem called ‘The Divine Image’ and it begins like this
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
The virtue of mercy he suggests is both human and divine, we respond with mercy for we have received divine mercy. In Luke 18 Jesus tells the parable of the two men standing in the Temple before the Lord, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Both had come through the door and in that holy place they spoke to God. But the Tax Collector could not even look up but as it says in verse 13
‘was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”’
Jesus tells his listeners that God was merciful and this man went home justified and, we hope, changed and merciful.
If this year of mercy and these open doors can do anything I pray that they can get mercy back into our thinking and real in our lives. If it can challenge me in my own lack of mercy, if I can be more merciful and if we can all be more merciful then the world can be different. But we have to want to open the door to the heart of mercy that stand outside knocking.
The Pope has given us a simple prayer to offer each day in this Year of Mercy. Let it be the key to the door.
Lord, I am a sinner. Come with your mercy. Amen.