thinking theology

Three gates to the north and three in the south
There’s three in the east and three in the west
There’s twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

Well, there are so many ways to get us to the city
So many ways to get us to the city
There are so many ways to get us to the city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

And you can walk right in and you’ll be welcome in the city
Walk right in, you’ll be welcome in the city
Walk right in, you’ll be welcome in the city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

And you can come from the east to the middle of the city
And you can come from the west to the middle of the city
And we will be all together in the middle of the city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah
Oh, twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

Many artists have recorded the old gospel song Twelve Gates to the City. I used to listen to Joan Baez and the Weavers perform this song. As often happens when I start thinking about Sunday, a tune will pop into my head with a persistence that is not to be ignored.

I was thinking about how each of the resurrection stories, while full of joy, surprise and wonder, are very different in their details, different gates to the same city. Some people needed to have physical evidence (John 20:24ff). Others allow the mystery of the empty tomb to be sufficient (Mark 16:1-7). Some people rediscover the risen Teacher in word and sacrament, as in the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13ff); some in being nurtured (Matthew 28:8-10); some in being challenged (John 21:15-17). These stories of the resurrection do not tell us what happened as much as they tell us how the friends of Jesus experienced his resurrection. Mind, heart, experience: all may be gates into the city of the resurrection if we consider the experiences of those first witnesses.

When we moved into the historical era of doctrines and approved answers, I think we lost some of the wonder of the astonishing way the risen Christ enters people’s lives. Whether it is placing our hands in the wounds by experiencing the suffering of others, or whether it is the joyful celebration of a formal or a casual meal, Jesus meets us where we are. We do not need to find him. He will always find us. He may look like a gardener or a stranger, but he travels alongside humanity with the same qualities of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity, that characterized his human life.

There are at least twelves gates to the city, but there may be infinite numbers too. We may find ourselves passing in and out of the city, entering by different gates, and witnessing to greater depth and clarity of faith as we travel on. Sometimes, we may think we are outside of the city altogether, much as we have thought we were outside the garden of creation;  but  there has only ever been one garden — dependent on our perception — and authentic, corporeal life exists only in the City. The gates are the passages of our understanding and faith.

We will never be abandoned by the city, nor will we be excluded…nor will anyone else although the city may look as different as those experiences of resurrection so long ago.  The community helps us as we travel, as we hear the stories of others and their encounters on the road. Sometimes we may experience the ecstasy of feeling at one with the Holy; other times, it may be the via negativa, the dark night of the soul when we make room for new insight. Sometimes it may be ritual and sometimes it may be routines. Sometimes it may be learning and other times it may be re-creational.  It is not that we will to have these moments; it is that we, like the universe, are perpetually in motion, growing and transforming into the Holy.

I’m going to plant a heart in the earth, water it with love from a vein.

I’m going t praise it with the push of muscle, 

and care for it in the sound of all dimensions.

i’m going to leave a heart in the earth so it may grow and flower,

a heart that throbs with longing, that adores everything green,

that will be strength and nourishment for birds

that will be the sap of plants and mountains. 

— Rosario Murillo —

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