By Chris Saxton
“Liminal,” is an adjective used by anthropologists to describe rights of passage, the dictionary says: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building. Liminal is the middle stage of a right of passage. The initiate is first stripped of the social status that he or she possessed before the ritual, inducted into the liminal period of transition, and finally given his or her new status and re-assimilated into society. It is a place of ambiguity. In my case, I have left one settled place by offering myself for ordination, left one era and mode of being, and I haven’t yet reached a new position.
These people who had been with their leader for three years, wandering with him, talking to him, listening to his words and stories, seeing his healing, seeing his miracles, eating with him, and weeping with him, have seen their world destroyed. These men and women have witnessed their beloved suffer and die on the cross. They have shed tears and mourned. They have had their hearts broken and laid in a tomb with Jesus’ body. They have discovered the empty tomb and now they are gathered to hear the story of two of their number who, in the wilderness on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, encountered another traveler.
This stranger had asked Cleopas and his friend what was going on, why were they so distressed, and they tell him of Jesus whom they loved and followed, how he had been seized and crucified and how their world had ended. Then, when invited to eat with the disciples this stranger takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them revealing himself to be Jesus. They rush back to tell of their experience with their resurrected Lord. And confusion and uncertainty reigns. They are in a liminal place.
Theologians argue where Christianity begins. For some it begins with the birth of Jesus. For others it is the resurrection, the empty tomb that is the starting gate for our faith. For yet others, it is Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles like a mighty wind. For me, it is in this room where Christianity begins, in this liminal place. Jesus appears to them and surprises his disciples in that upstairs room. After all, he's supposed to be dead! But he comes among them alive again, more alive than he was before.
How does he explain himself to these people who cannot believe that he is back, whose hearts are racing? Not by the look in his eye. Not by the sounds of his voice. What Jesus does to explain himself is show them his wounds. He puts forth his hands, and they see the immense scars that occupy his palms. He points to his one side, where yet another scar runs down his body.
These wounds identify him as the Jesus they knew before, now back alive among them. He is not some insubstantial spirit or spectre, some hallucination or memory. He is a real person, of flesh and blood and bone, aware of himself and his surroundings, eating fish with them, able to touch others and be touched by them. He is the crucified messiah come back to life.
It is in embracing that ambiguity, that mystery that transformation happens. When, as in the Gospel of John’s telling of this appearance, Thomas utters the words “My Lord and my God!”
There is no going back. The world can never be the same. This is the beginning of Christianity.
Today, I think as a church we are in that locked room, betwixt and between where confusion and uncertainty reign… In a liminal place, asking the question: Is this the end or a beginning? Where is God in this moment?
Church historian Diana Butler Bass documents this turmoil in interviews with Christians, quoting an Anglican who states, “I’m continually being disappointed by… the institutional church. Institutional self-preservation seems more important than those on the front line who still minister to the physically, emotionally, and spiritual needy.” Another bluntly states, “Christianity has become a culture unto itself and has merely skimmed over what Jesus has said and is saying.”
Are these observations signs that we are witnesses to Jesus dying again? Where our faith will take us from here future generations will have to answer. But surely, my faith tells me, we are not at the end, rather at a new beginning.
Jesus comes to us as he came to the disciples, incarnate. He is real and fleshy and wounded. The embodiment of Christ provides a model and metaphor for how the disciples, and we, are called to interact with the world. Jesus' parables point to his inclusive love for the poor and the broken. Humanity is broken and we are called to heal as Jesus did. His table fellowship with sinners and outcasts also suggests that our Lord was concerned with the physical needs of people and we are called to answer that concern with action. In embracing this call and in embracing the ambiguity in Jesus’ appearance we fall into transformation and cross the threshold.
In my own life, I know I have left a settled place and I cannot go back. I think as church, in this post Christendom, world we have left our settled place and cannot go back. I believe that this is a beginning for us and that God is here present as we step over the threshold. In so doing we have accepted the ambiguity of liminality and we are transformed, as were the disciples in that upper room. There is no easy route from here but only the uncertainty of being in a liminal place. Following the disciples’ example, I invite you to walk this path in confidence that the love Jesus embodied and incarnate walks with you.
Chris Saxton is in his final year as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton