Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Narrow Gate

Since the 1870s, the Paulist Fathers have maintained a summer vacation home in the Adirondack Mountain Region at Lake George, NY. Our seminarians still go there, for example, after they finish their summer assignments, for a short stay before starting school again at the end of August. In the early years, before the Sacred Heart parish church was built, the Paulists celebrated Sunday Mass for the local Catholic community in a public building in Lake George Village. One Sunday, so the story goes, some unfriendly neighbors locked the door to prevent Fr. Hecker from celebrating the Mass there. Hecker, however, found an unlocked ground floor window, opened it, and climbed in, followed by his assembled congregation. Supposedly, he then took as his theme for his sermon, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel [Luke 13:22-30], “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”

For the past several Sundays (prior to the Assumption), the Sunday gospels have highlighted Jesus’ instructions on the type of life his disciples should lead and the serious choices they may be required to make. So we should hardly be surprised that somebody finally asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” This was not some abstract academic discussion on a theoretical level about the total number of those who will make it into the kingdom. This was a practical, personal question about what is ultimately the most important thing of all – salvation. Having listened carefully to Jesus’ instructions and having felt the weight of his demands, we can easily empathize with the questioner and understand his concern.

Jesus was an expert at not answering a question directly and instead shifting the focus to the person asking the question. So, instead of entering into a debate about numbers and the salvation of others, Jesus focused on the questioner himself. He told him what to do: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” Strive, Jesus says, using a word that suggests intense energy, the intense energy of an athletic contest, for example. Even more to the point, do it now. The time to enter that narrow gate, the time to get with the program (as one might say it today) is now. We have only a limited amount of time in life. When it is over, we may well wish we had used out time better, used it to focus our priorities on the things that matter most. We may wish we had entered when we had the time, when the door was till open; but by then the door will have been locked, and it will be too late to change our minds.

As the 15th century author of The Imitation of Christ – perhaps the most widely read Christian spiritual book after the Bible – famously expressed it: “do not put off your good deeds until after your death … It is better to provide for yourself ahead of time and to send some good deeds before you … Now the time is very precious … Therefore study so as to live now that at the hour of death you may rejoice rather than fear.”

The key point in all this, of course, is that, however narrow the gate may be, as of now it is still open – open for us, open in fact for all sorts of people to squeeze through, from the east and the west and from the north and the south, says Jesus, echoing the astounding image in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 66:18-21] in which the Lord says he will come to gather nations of every language. Just imagine all those Gentiles being brought to Jerusalem! Imagine Gentiles being transformed by God himself into priest and Levites!

Isaiah’s prophecy invites us to hear today’s Gospel in its fullness. The fact that the gate is narrow is a challenge, to be sure, but not a menace. We can, of course, come to feel menaced and so give in to discouragement.

Of course, if I think it’s all about me, then the gate is certainly going to appear much too narrow - much too narrow for the likes of me to squeeze through on my own. But, of course, it’s not all about me – or about anyone of us! It’s about God’s great plan for the salvation of the world. It’s about what God is doing – and is going to do. And it’s about my – and your, and his, and her, and our – wanting to be part of it, wanting to focus our lives on what matters most, here and now, day by day.

The opposite of despair, of course, is presumption, the perncious idea that one can just demand entry as if by right, no effort required, no response in return to God whose love alone opens the gate for us. We will avoid both despair and presumption when we appreciate that the effort involved, all our striving for salvation with the intense energy of an athletic competition, is, in this case, a team sport. Note that in Isaiah’s prophecy, people don’t just show up from all the nations. They are brought in by others sent out to get them, missionaries proclaiming God’s glory among the nations. We walk through the narrow gate together. And, as long as we are willing to help one another - and are willing to be helped in turn – that gate will prove wide enough.

Homily at Immaculate Conception, Knoxville. August 22, 2010

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