Since the 1870s, the Paulist Fathers have had a summer vacation home in the Adirondack Mountain Region at Lake George, NY, where Isaac Hecker and the early Paulists would go for relief from the summer heat of the city. Our seminarians still go there each year after they finish their summer assignments and before going back to school. In the late 19thcentury, before the local parish church was built, the Paulists used to celebrate Mass for the local community in a public building in the village. One Sunday, so the story goes, some unfriendly neighbors locked the door to prevent Father Hecker from getting in. Hecker, however, found an unlocked ground-floor window and climbed in – followed by the entire congregation. He then used as his sermon theme Jesus’ words we just heard: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”
For several weeks, the Sunday gospels have highlighted Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about their new life and the choices it requires. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus says. Strive suggests struggle, commitment, focus, intensity of effort. Even more, in a conversation in which most of the verbs are in the future tense, Jesus speaks specifically in the present, do it now, Jesus says. The time to enter that narrow gate is now. There is only just so much time. Time is that one absolute constraint on our human freedom that we cannot overcome or transcend. Time – that is, the limited amount of time – challenges us to focus our lives on what matters most in human life. When it’s over, we may wish we had used our time better, used it to focus on the things that should have mattered more to us. We may wish we had entered when the door was still open, but by then the door will be locked, and it will be too late to change our minds.
The point, of course, is that however narrow the gate may be, as of now it is still open - open for us, for all sorts of people to squeeze through, from the east and the west and from the north and the south, as Jesus says, echoing Isaiah’s image of the Lord coming to gather nations of every language. Imagine Gentiles being transformed by God himself into priests and Levites!
Isaiah’s image invites us to hear today’s Gospel in its fullness. The fact that gate is narrow is indeed a challenge – but not a menace. Sure, the gate is narrow – too narrow for me to squeeze through on my own. But, of course, it’s not about me. It’s about God’s great plan for the world. It’s about what God is doing and going to do – and about my and your and his and her and our wanting to be part of it, wanting to focus on what matters most, here and now.
The opposite of discouragement and despair, of course, is presumption, the idea that entry is some sort of right, no effort required. We will avoid both despair and presumption when we appreciate that the effort and energy involved is a team project. Listen to Isaiah. People don’t just show up from all the nations. They are brought in by others sent out to get them. We squeeze through the narrow gate together. And, as long as we willingly help one another – and are willing to be helped in turn – that gate will prove wide enough.
Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 25, 2019.