The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
Have you ever been among a great crowd moving toward the entrance to a big attraction, like Disneyworld or a sports stadium? At first the entrance seems wide and open to all, but as you get closer, you discover that the gate is not the wide open entrance you thought. The broad gate narrows down to a turnstile where you enter one by one, and those with authority to reject people from entry say, “Hold your own ticket, please.” So, Jesus describes the door to the Kingdom. Our impression is that it is wide and open to all – but then comes the struggle to go through the narrow door: one at a time and you hold your own ticket.
Today in our gospel we encounter one in a series of hard sayings of Jesus. Not that they’re hard to understand, but they’re hard for us, in our fallen human nature, and in our fallen human society, to accept. They go against our modern sensibilities, which is to say, the secular culture. How can we say that the Catholic Church claims the sole authority to teach the faith and morals of God? How can we claim that many people don’t go to heaven when they die? How can we say that bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Jesus, the divine Son of the One True God? These claims don’t fit with what secular culture teaches as true, good, and reasonable. So even within the Church, there are many who reject, or at least struggle to accept, these truths.
I really wanted to talk about “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” at this point, because it’s the religious sense by which our secular culture judges religions (or religious teachings) as good or bad. But it’s just too much to add. You can follow the link to see where I unpacked that idea in an earlier homily.
Someone asks Jesus the question, “Will only a few people be saved?” His response is our entire Gospel reading, which has three parts. The first part of his response is, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” When he says, “strong enough,” he doesn’t mean physical strength. He means spiritual strength: the virtues and character, developed over a lifetime of discipline, to deny ourselves and our earthly desires, to carry our crosses with grace, to serve and give to others with selfless love and generosity, to share the gospel by words and deeds, to love and worship God with all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. His emphasis is not on answering the question, but on teaching his questioner that whether the answer is few or many, to make sure he is one of the ones who makes it.
In the second part of his answer, Jesus uses the image of a homeowner hosting a joyful banquet. You are outside knocking to be let in, but the homeowner says, “‘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. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’” You will be outside the gates of the banquet of heaven, the wedding supper of the Lamb, knocking to be let in, and instead, you will be rejected as a stranger. And you will say, but I’m an acquaintance, I’ve read some of your things, I did some of your things, I went to your church sometimes. And he will say, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” That doesn’t just mean “literally Hitler.” It means everyone who hasn’t made their spiritual relationship with God their first priority, those who don’t have the wedding garment of holy works, those who haven’t invested their lives in laying up their heavenly treasures, those who have not been good soil for the Word of God, and did not bear the fruit of holy life, but rather invested everything in this passing world.
The only one worthy of entering heaven is Jesus. The “homeowner” (God) accepts “his own,” and “his own” is Jesus. If we want heaven, then we must bear the image of Jesus, in our human nature, which is body and spirit: in our spiritual reality (sacramental grace, by which we are forgiven our sins and enter into the familial covenant, by which we bear the image of Jesus as his adopted brothers and sisters), and in our physical reality (our virtuous character, and our works of mercy, service, and love). We have a familial relationship with God because we are adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus, and so we are adopted sons and daughters of God (and we strive to live the way our Father has taught us). If we’re not part of the family, then we will be rejected as a stranger, because only those from God (bearing Jesus’ image) may enter into the presence of God, which is heaven.
A parishioner asked me after Mass what Jesus meant by, I don’t know where you are from. I answered him, that Jews were very big on genealogy (who are his parents, who are his family?). And we’re often the same way. “Who are you? Where did you come from? Why should I trust you? What’s your connection to me? I don’t know you. No, I’m not going to let you in. Depart from me.”
And finally, in the third part, Jesus teaches his listeners, “And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” There was a question being commonly asked at the time of Jesus about who was going to be part of the glorious coming age of the New Creation, if it was all Jews, or only some Jews, the faithful remnant. And Jesus says, well yes and no, from the way you’ve asked the question. It will be a faithful few of Israel, yes… but also a faithful few from all the parts of the world, even those who are not Jews. In the temporal and political minds of Israel of the time, non-Jews (gentiles, the goyim) being part of the Messianic New Creation was preposterous. But of course this was what the scriptures had always said. And our first reading, from the very end of the book of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, is one of those scriptures.
“Thus says the LORD… I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory… from them I will send fugitives [messengers] to the nations… they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations… to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD…” One of the expectations of the Messiah was the reunification of the twelve tribes of Israel. But the northern 10 tribes had been dispersed among the nations by the Assyrians in the 7th century BC. So for the Messiah to rejoin all 12 tribes into the new covenant, the new covenant would have to include the other nations. And God says, then from those nations, I will send messengers to still further nations, and all will be invited into the new covenant. INVITED… Of course, the tragedy is, to be part of the covenant of God, first, to enter into it, and then, to live as part of it, is up to the free will of each person. And many, even most, will elect to exclude themselves… perhaps not explicitly, by an outright “no” to God, but rather participating outwardly, seeking the benefits of the covenant, but failing to live the interior commitment to God’s love and truth in their will.
Like last week, I want to stop there, to talk about something else. Many of you have probably heard about the recent Pew Research survey that reported that, of the Catholics who took part in their study, about 70% did not believe in the real presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, but believed the Eucharist is only a symbol of Jesus. And about 40% believed that the Church teaches that it’s only a symbol of Jesus.
I (want to/have to) believe that Holy Trinity is way above the bell curve, and that you firmly believe that the Eucharist is truly the real presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus. Because this is right there at the heart of our faith. Maybe in other churches the homilies are shallow and poorly prepared, and the Mass is offered without concern for dignity or beauty, perhaps in a modern uninspiring church, with trite, feel-good music, in which “the contemporary worshiping community” narcissistically sings about itself. I don’t believe that Holy Trinity matches that picture.
I try to be as intentional and clear as I can, that in this beautiful, reverent liturgy of the Church (yes, the Novus Ordo), we are worshiping the God of Israel, who became flesh, and that we are giving thanks to God for the gift of his life-giving flesh and his blood of the new covenant, which we eat and drink to nourish his life in us through our sacramental communion with him. It may be weird to say we believe that bread that looks like bread is supernatural human flesh, but this is the truth we believe and teach.
I’ll end by asking you to be always more intentional about actively participating, being totally present to the Mass, not reading the bulletin, not looking at your phone, not day-dreaming. And I ask that in receiving the Sacrament, you do so with as close to infinite reverence as you can muster. When the minister says to you, “The Body of Christ,” you are receiving the real body of Christ, like the beautiful statue of the Pieta, in which the body of Christ, God made flesh, is taken off the cross and given to his Mother Mary. Except this isn’t the dead body of Christ, He is risen from the dead and ascended to the Father, and He gives us his transfigured flesh by the grace of His sacraments.
And when the minister gives you communion, don’t say “Amen” like you would say “thanks” when a cashier hand you your unwanted receipt at the store. This isn’t a piece of paper you’re going to put in the trash. This is God giving you his being; this is as if someone just gave you their newborn infant; this is as if someone could place their still-beating heart in your hands in perfect trust; this is as if someone placed in your hands a priceless, intricately carved gold figure so fine that the gold was almost transparent and the slightest pressure might crush it; this is truly the most valuable substance on earth, being entrusted to you. Say “Amen” with the awe and reverence that that moment rightly deserves.
May the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even to the end of time. Amen.