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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (21.08.16)
The Narrow Gate
Jesus, in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) refers to a time of “… wailing and grinding of teeth …”. One sure cause for such behaviour is remorse. We have become accustomed to off-loading blame when it more rightly belongs to us!
Jesus wills nobody to be trapped in relentless remorse. Pope Francis has declared 2016 a ‘Year of Mercy’ with ‘Holy Doors’, the passing through which indicates a person’s desire to be freed from remorse, being made accessible all over the free world. No longer do people seeking healing and forgiveness have to journey to the ‘Holy Door’ at St. Peter’s in Rome. Reports of grace-filled moments have begun to emerge where people, especially in groups, are making a pilgrimage to their local ‘Holy Door’. In today’s Gospel a bystander asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus answers: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
At first sight, people may interpret Jesus’ reference to the ‘narrow gate’ to be a restriction. In a good sense it is. The narrow gate to the sheepfold enabled the gatekeeper to make sure that the animals that entered were his. Jesus’ ‘narrow gate’ ensures that each person is respected for her or his individual uniqueness. Moreover, the ‘narrow gate’ ensures that each person freely, knowingly and willingly chooses to pass through the gate. As we know, crowds have a momentum in which individuals can be lost and swept along without fully committing to the process.
We might think of being born as our first ‘narrow gate’ experience. Multiple pregnancy babies are born individually. Equally, we will depart this world individually. We may well be one of many doing so at the same time but each departure is unique and individual.
In between these two landmark moments, each of us faces innumerable ‘narrow gate’ moments of varying significance but none are insignificant. The judgement we exercise in approaching each gate is based on the teaching and example given to us in our formative years. The catechetical environment of the Christian home is the crucial ingredient for enabling children to acquire a purposefulness, based on their Baptismal relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, that will support them forever at life’s ‘narrow gates’. The school environment is important too, but secondary as it can never make good what is lacking at home.
Jesus refers to those who will “ …attempt to enter but will not be strong enough”. The temptation is to think that Jesus is saying that there is no entry for them. He is not saying that. He is saying they may not be strong enough to make an unaided entry. Is this not a moment to reread Luke 15: 1-7:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Is there a pilgrimage to the ‘Holy Door’ in your neighbourhood being organized? If not, then why don’t you and your friends organize a pilgrimage? Would you not think to invite non-church attenders among your friends and relatives? Perhaps a concerted novena of prayer would be a support to the invitation. Who knows what good may come of it? Pope Francis’ first visit outside of the Vatican, after he became Pope, was on 8th July 2013 to Lampedusa a tiny unknown Sicilian island made famous because of the migrants who made the treacherous crossing and the many who didn’t. In this and innumerable subsequent visits to scenes of human deprivation, Pope Francis is enacting a Christ-like response to Jesus’ words about those who “ …attempt to enter but will not be strong enough”.
A fair question would be with whom do we align ourselves, the muttering Pharisees and teachers of the Law or Jesus of Nazareth? Are we for a ‘points system for entry’ or for Jesus’ openness?
Our Lucan extract for this Sunday includes Jesus’ parable relating to the General Judgement at the end of the world. It would appear that Jesus has in mind nominal Christians and nominal ‘people of faith’:
“After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.”
A 21st Century interpretation of what those knocking on the door and shouting were saying might be – ‘Hey, we were Baptised!’, ‘We went to Catholic schools’, ‘We made our First Communion’, ‘We were Confirmed’…..
The Sacraments of the Church are to enable us individually and collectively to grow our relationship with Jesus. Everything that grows has to be fed regularly. We eat regularly. A family is bonded the more it shares life. Jesus offers us the Eucharist and Reconciliation as nourishment for our relationship with him. When we decline to receive the sacraments our relationship with Jesus suffers. Where the failure is culpable – we know what we ought to do but do not do it – we have no one to blame but ourselves. There is still forgiveness for the Good Shepherd still seek us.
But let us be clear, no Baptised person can access the ‘narrow gate’ on the Christian capital that others before them, including relatives such as grandparents etc, have built up. As adults we are individually responsible for the growth of our personal relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. Equally we will be held to account for how we have brought sacramental nourishment to others. None of us can get by on borrowed goodness.
Hopefully, the celebration of this ‘Year of Mercy’ may stimulate our personal prayer and outreach to ‘lapsed’ Catholic neighbours, family members or work colleagues. If you have experience of a ‘Year of Mercy’ celebration why not speak about it? You words may cause a spark of interest now or perhaps later. If you remain silent that spark is stillborn.
Perhaps you are thinking, ‘Well, isn’t that the Church’s job?’ Have you forgotten that you are the Church – the visible, sometimes audible, brother or sister of Jesus of Nazareth - where you are and among those with whom you associate? Writing this, I can hear all the barrage of customary defensive responses – ‘I wouldn’t know what to say’, I’ve never been trained’, ‘I’d be embarrassed’. Not a single word of Jesus’ foster-Father, Joseph, is recorded but we can read of his actions and we know how much he was loved and respected by Jesus and Mary and is loved and respected by believers today.
Isaiah, (First Reading 66: 18-21), speaking for God says:
“I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.”
Isaiah’s words paint a scene of a homecoming for a reconciled humanity, through the ‘narrow gate’. The setting is Jerusalem. Not the city of hostile and suspicious division in the Middle East of today but a great gathering place with the majesty of the revelation of our Triune God at its heart. At this assembly God’s people will be raised to a new appreciation and understanding of their relationship with the Divine.
Our journey to this assembly is an active pilgrimage 24/7. For this reason the extract from the Letter to the Hebrews, this Sunday’s Second Reading, concludes: “So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.”
This mobilisation of our spiritual resource is not just for our self. We are called to be consciously engaged with the salvation of all peoples. We, recovering sinners, have much to contribute beyond saying: “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”.
Sunday 28th August 2016 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time