Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Narrow Gate

The Catholic Liturgy for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Aug. 25, 2019. Gospel of Luke 13:22-30. Theme: The Narrow Gate

Jesus always used mental pictures, memories of experiences from everyday life, to help convey his teachings. In this way, his lessons had a deeper real life meaning to people.  He could convey so much more by means of images and memories than by just words alone.

And Jesus does just that in today’s gospel when teaches about salvation and makes mention of to “the narrow gate”. He said, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will try to enter but will not be strong enough.”  And the people knew exactly what he was referring to because the temple of Jerusalem, like any protected place, was a fortified building. As a defense against enemies or looters, it was surrounded by high walls with only a few means of entry.   

There was the broad main gate that was open during the day and through which many people could enter at the same time. It was guarded but not very restricted; very much like the entrances to amusement parks or sports arenas today. However, the main gate wasn’t the only means of entry. Access was provided for qualified people by means what were called “the narrow gates.”

These restricted access entries were built into the walls at various locations and were somewhat hidden. Some of them were simply slits wide enough for only one person at a time to pass through carefully. Others were built above ground level so that you had to climb up into them. While still others were made very low requiring a person to stoop down in order to gain entry.

Jesus is telling us that attaining salvation, that is, reaching heaven, can be very much like using those narrow gates. The Kingdom of God doesn’t have an easy-access main gate through which we can pass without giving it a second thought. This is why he says that many try but fail. They aren’t strong enough spiritually.  They don’t have the intention or put out the effort. Their relationship with God is not valued as a top priority in their lives.

But, no matter what type of narrow gate it was – a thin slit in the wall, a step-up or a stoop down doorway, they all had three things in common. 1. You had to know where they were located. 2. You had to know how to gain access to them. And 3. You had to be determined because all of them required intention and effort.  And so, Jesus directs us to learn some vital lessons about salvation from the narrow gates.

First, we have to know where we find the gate to heaven. In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us the answer when he declares, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” We heard these words of Christ chanted today by the cantor during the Alleluia.  They remind us that there is no other means of entry into God’s Kingdom, no other gateway to heaven, except through Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior.

Second, we have to know where to go to gain access to this Gate.  We go to the Catholic Church which has received the Scriptures and the Sacraments from God himself. Gaining access to Christ the Gateway to salvation is actually why the Church exists and it is the whole point of the Gospels and of the Sacraments. Both are meant to help us experience a personal encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus. They enable us to be re-energized and strengthened to keep on striving for that narrow gate of salvation.

Third and finally, it seems to me that in today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking us to honestly and humbly make an important self-assessment of our spiritual condition. He has warned us that some of us will not be strong enough to make our way through the narrow gate. And so, perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves: Am I devoting enough time to prayer, to the Eucharist, and to reflecting on the Gospels so as to build up my spiritual muscles and become fit for the Kingdom of God?

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Fire & Division?

The Catholic Liturgy for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Aug. 18, 2019. Gospel – Luke 12:49-53. Theme: Fire & Division?

Today’s gospel can be quite a contrast to our traditional image of Jesus! Where is the meek and mild gentle Jesus of our Christmas carols? The Jesus who commands us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies? The Jesus whom Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace?  The impression of Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel seems so very different, what with talking about setting the world on fire and saying that he has “not come to bring peace but division”.

But we have to remember that, when Jesus became a human being he entered into a specific time of history and into a specific culture which became his own. And so, we hear him today speaking as a 1st century Jew using a very common Hebrew form of over-emphasis and exaggeration in order to prove his point.  Translated roughly into 21st century English, what he is saying is this: “If you would be a Christian in actuality and not just in name only, your relationship with me must take priority over every other relationship even if this causes difficulty.”

I personally know of couples where only one spouse is a devout believer while the other is not so much or even not at all, and who struggles to understand the commitment of the other, sometimes causing friction as each Sunday approaches. Or of parents at odds with a child who has abandoned the faith of their baptism and has taken up a lifestyle diametrically opposed to Christianity. Or of siblings who ridicule one of their own brood because of his or her adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

I’m sure many of you have encountered or perhaps are even now experiencing such things. We all know that there are times in life when we just have to make a choice and take a stand.  We have to be strong in our convictions and firm in our faith but in a way that does not intentionally attack or offend others.  And the key word here is intentionally, because it is impossible to live in peace with everyone, but the first one we must live in peace with is God.

But this challenge of faith in our relationships is nothing new. Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, there have been many who have been shunned, disowned or even martyred by their own families because of their conviction for Christ, fidelity to his Word, and obedience to God’s commandments.  Someone who always comes to my mind in this topic of maintaining the priority of our relationship with Christ is a teenage martyr of the 7th century to whom I am very devoted: her name is St. Dymphna. 

I wish she was better known in our times because she is a saint we need so much today.  She is the patron saint of emotional and mental health, and a powerful intercessor with Christ for such things as nervousness, anxiety, panic, depression, suicide, phobias, eating disorders, addictions and co-dependency.  Dymphna was a living example of today’s gospel and she paid the ultimate price for the sake of her commitment to God over family, as difficult as it was for her to do. (To hear her story, listen to audio homily).

But that isn’t the full story of St. Dymphna. But before going on with it, I want to recall another strange thing Jesus says to us today.  He informs us that he wants to set a blazing fire on the earth!  This fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to maintain the priority of our relationship with Christ. And by doing so, the Spirit empowers us to influence others and be a force for good in our surroundings. This is what Jesus means by setting the fire ablaze.  The fire unleashed through St. Dymphna in the village of Geel is still burning 1,500 years after her martyrdom, which brings us to the rest of her amazing story. (Listen to audio homily for the rest of her story)

By clinging jealously to our relationship with Christ like St. Dymphna did, and by opening our hearts to the fire-power of the Spirit, we can move out of our mediocrity and lukewarm existence as Christians. We can be truly transformed from the inside out and become instruments of peace and justice, leaving our mark in the world just as she did.

For more information about St. Dymphna, prayers and religious articles of her, go to this link to her National Shrine in the USA:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

No Fear!

The Catholic Liturgy for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Aug. 11, 2019. Gospel – Luke 12:32-48. Theme: No Fear…

Jesus says a lot of things, but the one that really jumped off the page and caught my attention was the opening line “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”   This short little sentence from Jesus touches the heart and reveals to us three things:

First, He assures us that we never need to live in fear. It’s a familiar and frequent reminder that he gives to his followers because he knows how easy it is for fear to take hold of our lives. There are so many things these days that can have the effect of allowing fear in one way or another to invade and disturb our hearts. Worry, panic, anxiety and the like can become so paralyzing for some people and rob them of the peace and enjoyment God wishes them to experience.  We are not in control of everything that happens in our lives but God is.  And he will make all things work out ultimately for the good of those who trust in him. If, instead of spending time worrying about things, we use some of that time for our personal conversation with God in quiet prayer from the heart, we will see that fear begins to go slowly away and serenity enters in to take its place, giving birth to trust in our lives.

Second, Jesus calls us his “little flock”. This term of endearment reveals the intimacy and depths of his love for us. Jesus has a gentle and compassionate heart which yearns to enter into a meaningful relationship with each one of us.  These words, calling us “his” reveals not only that we belong to Jesus but that he will shepherd and guide us throughout the ups and downs of life. Once we grasp the depths and reality of his love for us, we will easily reject temptations to fear, to be afraid. As the Scriptures tell us, perfect love casts out all fear.

Third and lastly, Jesus reminds us to reject fear because God our Father calls us to live within the safety of the Kingdom of God. Jesus once said that “the kingdom of God is within you” and this becomes a reality when we receive him in Holy Communion. This makes total sense because a kingdom is where the King lives, and so through our reception of the Eucharist, Jesus the King lives within us. This awesome reality should drive out all fear from our hearts and increase our trust in him. We do not need to be afraid any longer because we carry the King of heaven and earth within us!

As we continue our liturgy and prepare for the awesome gift of Holy Communion, let’s keep in mind these intimate words of our compassionate Lord Jesus. Let’s allow his words to cast out all fear from our lives and to increase within us the desire to draw closer to his Sacred Heart, which loves us so much and asks only for our love in return.