Imagine the scene. You are downtown in one of the world’s great cities. You’re standing at the main entrance of a huge, opulent hotel, whose solid stone walls soar upward for many floors. The canopied entrance features a red carpet that crosses the sidewalk to the street, and brass fittings that gleam like gold. It’s a damp winter evening. Flurries dance through the air.
Presiding over this elegant space in front of the hotel is the doorman. A mountain of a man, he cuts quite a figure, dressed in a knee-length blue topcoat brightened by braid on the shoulders and the sleeves. The stripes on his uniform pants lead down to his black, shiny shoes. A serious hat rests on top of his head. With utter dignity, he opens doors, orders cabs, greets people coming and going, and lends even more substance than it already has to the building behind him.
There you are at the main entrance. You’ve never been to this hotel before. In fact, in the small town you come from, there are only motels, and no doormen, especially not the sort who are grandly uniformed. But you have come to this metropolis for a convention, and the big banquet is tonight, here at this hotel.
The massive figure in the topcoat and braid now looms right in front of you. Never before have you seen the likes of him, except in old movies. Why should you do?
One option is to question him. Ask him whose army he is in, or is he an admiral? Ask him to count the brass buttons on his splendid coat. Ask him to come in out of the cold; you know a warm hotel lobby, and it’s only a short walk away.
A better option is simply to let him do his job. You’ve come for the banquet; his job is to open the door for you. A genial nod in his direction is all that he expects by way of recompense.
Which option do you choose?
The answer seems obvious, at least to anyone brought up halfway right. Don’t bother the doorman. Let him open the door for you. Go inside, get out of the cold, enter the warm lobby, then find your way to the feast.
This is not how it happens, though, when priests and Levites are sent down from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist some questions. He works as the doorman, the doorman to God’s hotel. But these priests and Levites and those who sent them simply refuse to have John open the door for them.
They have questions to ask him. “Who are you?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet like Moses?” John grows more impatient as he answers each successive question. “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not the prophet like Moses.”
Again they ask him, “Who are you?” He answers, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness what the prophet Isaiah said, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’“
This is what John insists: “I am only a voice; I am not myself the message. I am the doorman of God’s hotel; I am not the host at the banquet.”
John dresses as noticeably as any doorman, but differently. No topcoat or fancy hat for him. John is bare-chested, wearing a camel’s hair loincloth and a hairstyle that’s shaggy. He looks like a prophet from centuries before his time. He acts the part as well.
But there’s reason to believe that those priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem fail to get it. For all their fussing about John, they seem to miss his message. Standing outside on the sidewalk, chilled by the damp winter air, they don’t have sense enough to let this doorman usher them inside to the banquet that awaits them, an unforgettable feast.
A mistake of this sort happens to us often regarding life in general and religion in particular. We get distracted by what is, at best, of secondary importance. About such matters we think we have special awareness, reason to be in control, the right to take charge.
And so we do something foolish. It may not be as vulgar as mocking the doorman’s attire and his outdoor vigil, but it makes as much sense as that. We want him to count his topcoat buttons, while all the time there waits for us within the hotel the banquet of a lifetime.
We zero in on the inconsequential because we’re adept at small talk, we know how to pass the time, we can go through this routine in our sleep. Ah, there’s the problem, and John the Baptist, doorman to God’s own hotel, would be the first to agree: we spend much of our lives asleep. We hesitate to wake up, even to the splendor in front of our faces.
Sometimes we don’t go downtown ourselves. We dispatch our own priests and Levites to interview John instead. Reality is mediated by somebody else. We think it’s not real unless it’s on TV. We wonder if we’re real since we are not on TV.
But John stands there on the sidewalk, doorman to the greatest of all hotels, while inside candles are burning, and the wait staff are at their places, and the kitchen crew bustle about preparing the splendid feast.
In the Orthodox Church, the sanctuary is separated from the congregation by a wall pierced by several doors. The central ones, known as the royal doors, are opened at certain critical points in the service.
Eugene Trubetskoy, a Russian prince and a religious philosopher, made reference to this in his dying words, when he cried out, “The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin.” What he had seen so often in the church’s liturgy on earth was now apparent to him in the liturgy that takes place in heaven. The royal doors were opening in a new and astounding way.
We might do well, all of us, especially in this time of Advent, to recognize how the death of a Christian is like that. The royal doors open. The great Liturgy is about to begin.
Yet what is true preeminently when we die holds true also as long as we live. We can shift our attention from inconsequential routine, predictable small talk, and all things that seem safe because we think we can control them, and notice instead that the doorman, John the Baptist, wants to usher us inside the greatest hotel of all. We can discover that religion, like life itself, is not a matter of assessing the doorman; it is coming to accept with humility the hospitality of God.
What Eugene Trubetskoy spoke at the moment of his death is true not only when our earthly end arrives. It is true not only in these weeks of Advent. In a way strange and wonderful, it holds true at every moment, if only we remain awake and attentive. And because this holds true at every moment, we can come to our final end receptive and grateful.
“The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin!”