Second line of a whole genre of jokes, first line of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece. (Do you suppose anyone has ever thought of surreptitiously prefacing Hamlet with the words ‘Knock, knock’? I hope so.)
The other day I was out delivering emergency food parcels round the parish. At one address, I pressed the number on an entry phone panel, and when the person answered I asked, ‘Is that Fred?’ and the reply came back immediately: ‘Who’s asking?’
It’s a good question, almost a Shakespearean question. We want to know who’s at the door before opening up. We take precautions. I explained who I was, and waited.
H.G. Wells wrote a wonderful short story called ‘The Door in the Wall’. It’s about a man who all his life longs to return to a delightful, enchanting garden he entered as a child. He knows the garden lies behind a green door in a white wall on an ordinary street in West Kensington. But search as he might, he never finds the green door again.
We all have doors like that in our lives. For me: a narrow track twisting between olive groves, a high wall, a stout door and then views across a terrace of cobbles and brick to the sea. Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites on a tinny tape player The world moves on, but somehow the memories of what’s behind that door last forever.
Doors are boundaries: between the present and the past, now and then, between where we are and where we yearn to be. The Romans and Greeks developed a whole subgenre of love poetry – paraklausithyra poems – in which the lover is always separated from their beloved by a cruelly intervening door. Door as chastity belt.
We stand at a doorway now. Like bouncers outside a nightclub, the Prime Minister and his advisers are considering unlocking the door. No doubt there’ll be some club rules required of us in order to gain entry, the equivalent of a dress code, but we may be allowed to pass through. Back into the garden on the other side of the green door.
We’ve been waiting some time.
I am indebted to my friend, Robin White in Pewsey for noticing that today – May 2nd – marks forty days since the lockdown began. Forty days since the door closed.
How have those forty days been for you? We’ll all have different answers, different stories to tell, but I expect most of us will feel we’ve been tested. Some of us to breaking point.
Historically, and for reasons that remain unclear, being tested and the number forty are mystically related.
Robin has researched further. He’s found – and this is fascinating – that our word ‘quarantine’ comes from the word quarantena which in fourteenth or fifteenth century Venetian dialect means forty days. During outbreaks of plague, this quarantena was the period of time, the testing time, that had to elapse before the Venetian port authorities would allow crews and passengers to disembark their ships in any of the Republic’s territories.
As Robin recognises, the Bible contains numerous examples of the number forty being used to describe a time of testing and hardship. In fact, Robin claims, the number crops up one hundred and forty six times in the Bible. (I haven’t checked this, but I’m sure he’s right!) Here are a few well known examples:
God floods the earth by sending rain for forty days and forty nights. (Genesis 7:12) Moses’ spies in Canaan return after forty days to report back on the land of milk and honey. (Numbers 13:25) When, on account of the spies’ testimony, the Israelites prove rebellious and faithless, God responds:
According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years.Numbers 14:34
Jonah prophesies before the citizens of Nineveh that their city shall fall in forty days unless they repent and change their ways. (Jonah 3:4) Elijah goes forty days without food or water on his journey to Mount Horeb. (1 Kings 19:8) And, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ spends forty days fasting in the desert where he is tested by Satan. (Mark 1:13; Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2)
We have been tested; we are being profoundly tested. But in fact, as Christians, we’re always on the doorstep; we’re always standing at the threshold, just as I was standing with my shopping bags in the rain, waiting for Fred.
The gates to the Kingdom are always before us:
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.John 10:7,9
Like the character in H.G. Wells’s story, we’re searching for a door, but the truth is: it’s in front of us all, and has been all along, available, never locked.
Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.Matthew 7:7
You may have to ask, you may have to search, but the door is right there. No precautions. No dress code. No ‘Who’s asking?’
No ‘Who’s there?’
Thank you, Robin. And God bless you all. There really wasn’t a music choice to be made today. Too obvious? I don’t care! Turn it up:
we come before you at a time of trial,
a time of testing, our forty days.
Grant us the boldness to ask in prayer,
the perseverance to search in truth,
and the courage to knock in faith.
grant us the wisdom to see the gate is only ever a step away
and always standing open:
your Son, on whose shoulder is the key of the House of David:
when He opens, no one will shut.
NOTE: In yesterday’s reflection I quoted Gerald Osborne as saying that ‘the coronavirus is part of God’s perfect creation.’ Gerald has pointed out that I misrepresented his argument that the coronavirus is not part of God’s plan for creation. The mistake was inadvertant, but entirely mine. And may I refer you to Gerald’s original reflection: https://mailchi.mp/724e3c27724d/bats-pangolins-and-theology