Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time • Year C

David A. Cregan, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Is 66:18-21
Ps 117:1, 2
Heb 12:5-7, 11-13
Lk 13:22-30

The Pilgrimage Towards the Narrow Gate

Every morning God continuously extends to us the grace to become what we long to become. He generously offers us the opportunity to surrender ourselves to his loving kindness and compassion that draws out that which is best within us and purifies that which is not necessary. He does so in order to heal us, transform us, and teach us his hidden wisdom deep within. This transformative opportunity certainly sounds like a wonderful healing remedy for our wounded souls, especially in this troubled time of confusion, illness, violence, and division.

But in reality, at the end of the day, we are stubborn creatures, and when it comes to the actual act of surrender, we often hold back, consciously or unconsciously, in order to achieve what our lower nature wants. In order for God’s salvific grace to be effective – or “efficacious,” in theological language – we must personally and collectively agree to let go of a great deal of our preferences and allow his spiritual purifications to transfigure us in every way. In other words, in order to be transformed into his image and likeness, change requires of the faithful a particular kind of death-to-self that many of us will resist time and time again, even when we know these habits and attitudes are not good for us or for the greater good of creation. We cannot help ourselves. After all, if we are honest with ourselves, which one of us does not want to control life in one way or another? We like things to go our way. Here is where we begin to get off track on the journey towards God.

Today’s opening prayer calls us out of our disquieted selves and into an alternative more hopeful way of living by contemplating God’s invitation to a less self-centered way of being and towards hope for our broken world:

O God, who caused the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place
where true gladness is found.

It is inspiring to realize that each prayer, each Mass, each rosary, each act of service, is climbing the angelic ladder towards heaven, and leading us to the promise that we are to live in the place “where true gladness is found.” O how we long for that to be now!

Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that our lives fall from the highest ideals of heaven, only to get tangled in the complications of our all too complicated human realities. With the opportunity of blessings daily, we are also perpetually faced with the challenges and anxieties of managing our lives and our relationships, which inevitably keep us shackled to the burdens of life and, at times, bring us down.

If we are not intentional on the spiritual journey, the ways of the world can dominate our ideas and trap us in its smallness, hopelessness, and ungodliness. But we are promised so much more.

How then do we strive to live more fully and more faithfully in the promises of God? How do we accept his invitation to strive, to remain steadfast to the graces of gladness, even amidst trial and tribulation?

If you are anything like me you have a secret expectation that if you pray regularly, remain faithful to the sacraments, and even work in service and charity for others, that you will be rewarded with the peace and the gladness that come from God alone. But in today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear the challenge of arriving at that place where prayer takes us, the place where we are truly children of God:

My son, do not distain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as discipline…. At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

The “discipline” we hear about in the Letter to the Hebrews is, in fact, the training and the passport that will allow us to pass through the narrow gate that Jesus is teaching his followers to move through in today’s gospel from Luke. Jesus responds to the perennial question of who will be saved:

He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”

The discipline of dying to the imitation of Christ over our own wishes is the central discipline of a life of faith. Our faith must challenge the way we act and think so we can become more and more like Jesus in the way we live our lives and make our choices.

Let’s envision the journey by which we are following Jesus, the pathways that lead us to and eventually through the narrow gate:

Our baptism is the promise of God’s grace-filled support and the Spirit’s inspiration and protection throughout our lives. Prayer is our continual agreement and commitment to growing and changing as we travel down the spiritual pathways that lead towards salvation, and the gladness articulated in the liturgy today. Prayer is God’s work, so it is also continually gifted and renewed by God within us, expressing daily his unconditional love and presence. The Eucharist, the Real Presence of Christ, fortifies and strengthens us to keep moving forward, pointing us towards the necessary corrections we need to make in our lives when we have taken a wrong turn, when we sin. Scripture functions as the most reliable guidebook for us in keeping our commitment to dying to Christ over self. It is always instructing us on what we need to pack for the journey and what we must leave behind as we progress to the narrow gate.

Our carry-on bag must fit the standardized size for a journey to heaven if it is to make it through the narrow gate!

Scripture and the Eucharist give us clear insight into baggage restrictions. Items that must be left behind, and absolutely cannot be carried through the narrow gate, include but are not limited to: pride, covetousness, ungratefulness, gluttony, laziness, lust, negative thinking, anger, aggression, hatred/prejudice, greed, judgment of others, lying, selfishness, cheating, stealing, unforgiveness, gossip, and worldly ideas of exclusion. Please leave all of these behind as quickly as possible on the journey. If you fail to do so the weight will prevent you from being strong enough to keep moving. After all, these items are not necessary for where you are going. In fact, they are dangerous and may disrupt your travel plans.

Not to worry – if you accidentally or even purposely carry any of the above all the way to the narrow gate, there will be an opportunity to remove whatever you need to let go of at the very end. That is God’s boundless mercy. He knows that we are not perfect, nor does he expect us to be.

You may, however, pack for this journey as much of the following as you like: kindness, healing, compassion, forgiveness, charity, inclusion, understanding, non-judgment, peace, humility, gratitude, patience, courage, wisdom, honesty, fairness, self-control, fortitude, integrity…

Safe travels!

Friends, let us encourage one another to strive, to let go, to trust God in all things and strive to become imitators of Jesus; so much so that we may be mistaken for him in our daily lives!

For me, the single most important thing on this journey is the name of Jesus. Each time I am overcome, disappointed, tested by others, dismayed at my own weakness, anxious or afraid, I reach into my pocket for my rosary or my prayer rope and I repeat his name over and over: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. This prayer slowly but surely helps me return to what matters, it softens my judgment, it reminds me that this is God’s work not mine, and it leads me forward when I feel stuck and standing still. Frankly, his name rescues me in every way possible. I highly recommend this practice on your journey to become more and more like Jesus. He never fails us.

His name will be the first thing we say when we pass through the narrow gate.

As we courageously journey forward together, I leave you with the final words of inspiration from the Letter to the Hebrews:

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.