Several months ago, I stood outside the door of Sacred Heart Church welcoming people for the third and final Sunday Mass. I heard our music director welcoming everyone to prayer, and the assembly stood to sing the processional hymn. I was still outside the church door standing on the noisy sidewalk when a woman grabbed my chasuble and began to explain to me that she and her daughter had driven from Arkansas to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
She and her daughter were living in their car. She whispered into my ear that they both needed a shower, especially her daughter so that she would feel better about herself when attending school in the morning. The altar servers were already walking down the aisle, unaware that I was not following them. I found myself straddling the threshold of the church entrance, listening with one ear to this woman in need and trying to be attentive that it was time to walk down the aisle to celebrate the Eucharist.
Before I offered my voice to the opening hymn, I managed to speak with her about a meal that is offered in our parish center on Sunday evenings, called the Lord’s Dinner. The meal is open to everyone with no questions or barriers. I also suggested that she speak with one of our staff since the office is now open on Sunday. I promised her that I would voice a prayer for her and that I would hold her in my heart during the Mass.
I have been straddling the Church threshold my entire priesthood, holding within my heart, ministry and imagination the tension of prayer and service. The celebration of the Eucharist compels me to move well beyond the Church door. The Mass teaches me to serve people even beyond our parish roster. Service to people in need changes my heart and compels me back over the threshold to prayer every day. I have spent my adult life listening to the Scriptures and standing at the altar with my heart and hands open wide praying for justice and hope for people. The threshold of the Church is an authentic image of how I am formed as a pastor. I seek to build a community of prayer in God’s fidelity and to invite people to put that love into practice well beyond our church door and parking lot, among our neighbors, parishioners and strangers in need.
The Easter season opens up this image of the threshold within the Sunday Gospels. The profound mystery of Jesus’ resurrection opens up doors of justice, love and peace from the core of our faith. Since all suffering is consumed in his death, so all life is liberated and made whole in his resurrection. We cannot manage this liberation on our own terms or set out to offer such love for only one group of people. We all realize as pastors and priests that Jesus’ care and compassion pours forth to all people, most especially people who surprise us at our doors each day.
‘Do Not Be Afraid’
During the Easter Vigil, we hear how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1-10). At the threshold of the tomb, an angel appeared amid a great earthquake. The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” This phrase appears in the Gospels when there is a new presence or identity of Jesus, or when we just cannot believe what is happening next for Jesus.
This time the transitional phrase is striking and empowering, explosive with possibilities. The entrance to the tomb is open. The stone is rolled away, yet the tomb is darkened by fear. Jesus is not there. This is the new place where our faith begins. The threshold of the tomb becomes a place of hope, forgiveness, peace and love for all people.
Mary Magdalene, a woman follower of Jesus, goes out from the tomb’s threshold to become the “disciple to the disciples.” I ache to trust her word today, to listen to her testimony within my own heart where Jesus tries desperately to break through and offer his love. The threshold of the tomb is the place where imagination, creativity and mystery begin. This is the place of freedom and salvation for our people even today. She ran fearfully and yet with joy. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus, embraces his feet and pays him homage. The master now speaks these beautiful resurrection words, “Do not be afraid.” He compels Mary Magdalene to spread the news that life will never be the same.
The resurrected Christ proclaims to us, “Do not be afraid.” I need to be reminded of this several times a day. Jesus’ resurrection is real liberation from fear, turmoil, abuse and torment of all people. However, I still find myself wanting to put boundaries on these words. I still want to stand at the threshold of our parish community and determine where my ministry would be most effective, or offer it to the people who support our parish with time, talent and treasure. This place of uncertainty, this added threshold of who is in and who is out, becomes another place where so many of us as pastors stand. The Easter season reminds us that the poor, neglected and marginalized are not only the people who need God, but they along with Mary Magdalene are the very people who spread the Good News of Jesus’ life and love to us and our parishioners.
The Second Sunday of Easter reveals to us in all three liturgical cycles Thomas who speaks, probes and questions on our behalf (John 20:19-31). He represents all of our fear and doubt as he probes the mystery of the wounded Christ. Thomas opens us up to name, touch and heal the wounded Body of Christ in our own day and time. Thomas teaches us that to discover the resurrected Christ in our midst and even in the center of our own fear, we must be willing to touch real and honest suffering.
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I proclaimed this Gospel at my first Mass in 1983. In my homily, I spoke about probing the mystery of the wounded Body of Christ. I admit that in my youth I had no idea of where that would take me in my ministry. I have learned over the years that such depth and probing cannot be limited by my own life. I need even more to pay attention to the suffering that is presented to me on a daily basis. I have spent my entire priesthood reaching out to touch the suffering of marginalized people. As I look back, my seminary professors taught me to always reach out beyond the threshold of my fear, but I know that my heart is both reluctant and desiring to do so. On the day I celebrated the Eucharist for the first time, a man my own age with mental illness and learning disabilities received the Eucharist for the first time. We had worked together during my deacon year, along with his very determined mother, to get him over the threshold from fear to genuine communion with the Church.
When that man with disabilities received Eucharist from me, even before my family that morning, my heart burned with love. I recognized that the Eucharist is for people who ache to belong, those who feel they are outside the bounds of such compassion. This is our real ministry, to offer a new burning of love within those who most need God.
On the Third Sunday of Easter, the disciples eat with Jesus and he vanishes from their sight (Luke 24:13-35).
The raising up of Jesus is broadcast across the generations among those who feel empty inside and those who long for new integrity, compassion and wholeness. The disciples get this message from Jesus himself, that a new glow and radiance warms their hearts when they recognize him.
Love cannot be shallow, held on to selfishly, or neglected or encased in a tomb. Jesus’ love that warms our hearts and breaks through any threshold in which we want to keep it, whether only for ourselves or just for the rich, the well-educated and the deserving.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter offers us the image of Jesus being the gate (John 10:1-10). At this threshold, Jesus himself invites us to enter. We all have an instinct for the voice of Jesus. As priests and shepherds, we cannot limit this invitation to people we think are worthy of such an entrance into Jesus’ presence. Lost sheep teach me about Jesus. Lost sheep have nothing to lose. Marginalized sheep most often voice their need with clarity of intent, honesty of heart and hope beyond their own poverty.
I remember years ago a gentleman literally stood in the threshold of my office door. He said to me, “I have asked three other priests to speak with me and no one will. Would you at least listen to me?” I promised him I would listen, and I invited him through the doorway and into my office. He revealed to me that he had HIV/AIDS. That conversation broke through my own fear, and I stepped into a new threshold of ministry to the sick and marginalized that lasted more than 20 years. His question to me about my willingness to listen is still one of the most important questions any one has asked me in my priesthood.
My heart and ministry are shaped the most from lost sheep. They show me in my abundantly privileged life how to desire Jesus and how to find his compassion and mercy even through all the protected layers of my education and status within the Church.
The illustration of the threshold continues in the Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-12). Jesus invites us to himself with untroubled hearts. He promises us a place in his Father’s house. If we can trust and believe, if we have the courage to step over the threshold of faith, we know that we shall have an eternal dwelling. Jesus invites us to this unimaginable shelter, the home of peace and life. Jesus is the way to such a place. His truth and life become our GPS of faith. This image of our Father’s dwelling is not just at the end of our lives or at the end of time but a beckoning, a soulful awaking, a hope-filled promise for love today.
The shelter we all seek is in God. This is the beginning of our ministry as believers, to make sure people have what they need here on earth. Shelter is necessary for survival. Shelter in God is necessary for our very souls.
For more than a decade, I was fortunate to be part of a remarkable community that ministers among people who live outside. Living with severe addictions and mental illness, people came to us to get out of the cold, the snow and rain, and the hot summer days. Sheltering people even for a few hours a day taught us all to realize the tragedy of human suffering and the stories of neglect, severe abuse and generational poverty. I learned from people on the streets that no one chooses to live an unsheltered life. Some may say they have made that choice because they need to hold on to some dignity, to have some control over their lives — autonomy that is often lost when entering the shelter system. Jesus knew that shelter is key to life. He also knew that our survival rests in being invited into the house of the Father.
When the translation of the Mass was updated a few years ago, our parish had several meetings to discuss the new words and changes. We read aloud the change in the invitation to Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” When some people who live outside heard this, they began to cry. Even our volunteers reacted with emotion. They read this as if they needed a roof or a home of their own in order to receive Communion. When people do not have a roof, it is difficult to have Jesus enter under it. We all ache to belong in the Father’s dwelling. We know the way, the truth and the life. We know all people belong in this holy place, under the protection of our promised salvation.
On the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Jesus will not be satisfied to leave anyone an orphan (John 14:15-21). He invites all of us into the unity that he has with the Father and Holy Spirit. This is the shelter we all seek. This is the threshold of love we all desire to walk through. This is our genuine ministry as priests and pastors, the invitation to people to be united with God who has already promised us such a place, a vision and a reality.
Our parish in Colorado unites with an organization that helps foster children find homes. Hundreds of children are removed from their birth homes around the country. In many cases, these children are able to live in secure foster homes and even be adopted, but this is not true for all young people in the foster-care system. Some enter the world of human trafficking, others find foster homes where there is sometimes more neglect, and others travel on their own. So many of our young are disenfranchised from family and family heritage, from learning the basic aptitudes of life or discovering the ability to learn in school. Some children have not learned how to eat with a fork or to wash their clothing. This unity that Jesus speaks about is not about heaven. This unity begins with us reaching out to our children in the most fundamental aspects of human life and survival. This is a threshold that is sometimes very threatening to parishes and pastors. We tend to believe that our faith holds everything together even when our daily lives need such attention. We need to work without ceasing for the integrity of the human family and find real and profound joy in the lost and outcast.
Passing the Threshold
In the profound passion of Pentecost, the Gospel takes us back to what we heard on the Second Sunday of Easter. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” After the intense prayer and restorative images of the Easter season, we are even more aware of the need to walk through the threshold of our doubt and questions. The fire-bright Holy Spirit melts fear away and gives us courage to live and minister among those most cramped in worry. Only the Holy Spirit unlocks doors, transforms death and restores lackluster hope and ministry.
Jesus reveals his peace and proclaims to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Stepping over the barrier of that threshold was sheer miracle for the disciples. Stepping out, being free, searching for the sick and desperate poor, coming to know the warmth and vitality of the Holy Spirit — these are aspects of our ministry today.
The memory of my encounter with the woman at our parish door who grabbed my chasuble before Mass continues to remind me of the reassuring presence of the Holy Spirit. I hold in my ministry the heart-pounding desire to pray and to serve. People in need show us how to truly rely on the Holy Spirit. They help our parish communities navigate the thresholds of fear and teach us what it is we have to offer them. Easter love is manifest among the brokenhearted at the thresholds of our hearts and at our parish doors.
Father Ronald Patrick Raab, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Church (Tri-Community) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He hosts “On the Margins,” a weekly radio Scripture commentary on Mater Dei Radio in Portland, Oregon.