Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Narrow Path

We honor as saints those holy women and men who lived their lives according to the message of Jesus and are now enjoying eternal rest in heaven. They walked the narrow way by serving the poor, preaching the good news and dedicating themselves to prayer. Now, in heaven, they serve as an example for us to follow in our own lives.

When the Church declares someone a saint it is no small matter. Before they are held up as examples of a good and holy life, the Church wants to make sure that they truly were godly people. And so a thorough investigation is undertaken into their life and background. People who knew them are interviewed and any writings they may have left behind are scrutinized. There also have to be miracles which are attributed to their intercession. For this reason, it can take decades for someone to be declared a saint even when they have a reputation for holiness such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II. Before we declare that a person is undoubtedly in heaven, the Church wants to be assured that he or she is worthy of our imitation.

While the Church can declare with the certainty of faith that a soul is definitely in heaven, she will never declare that a soul is definitely in hell. Even when someone has been excommunicated for a very serious sin, we always hold out the hope of salvation for every person who has died. We do so because God has told us that he wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For this reason, we should never forget to pray for the souls of those who have died, no matter what type of life they lived. The hope of heaven is offered to everyone out of the mercy and love of God.

The greatest example of God’s desire to save all people is the cross. God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die for us so that our sins could be forgiven. He handed over that which was most precious to him so that we could be saved. It is the blood of Christ which is our hope of immortality. Through faith in his death and resurrection, we can be assured that our destiny is eternal life in heaven.

We have to be careful, however. While we must trust in God’s infinite mercy, we can never forget that hell is a real possibility. Jesus has made this clear in no uncertain terms. During his Sermon on the Mount, he declared, “Not all those who cry out, “Lord! Lord!” will be saved, but only those who do the will of my Heavenly Father.” In the parable of the sheep and the goats, he declares to those who refused to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And in today’s gospel, he says that many who expected to be given a seat at the banquet feast of heaven will be on the outside looking in. These words of Jesus should give all of us pause. While we must hope in the salvation of our souls, we should never take it for granted but, instead, should strive daily to live good and holy lives.

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that we should “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In Saint Matthew’s version of this reading, Jesus adds, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it.” This narrow gate is no doubt the way of life which Jesus marks out for us in the gospels. He tells us that he himself is the way. Any of us who have tried to take seriously the gospel message to love our neighbor and forgive those who have hurt us know how true Jesus’ words are. It is not easy to live our Catholic faith. We very often stumble along the way and get sidetracked. We might even want to give up altogether and look for an easier way. But we do not because we know that this path leads to Jesus, and we know that he is walking alongside us.

Today’s second reading is from the letter to the Hebrews. It was written for a people who are in many ways like us. They lived in a society that was hostile to the message of Jesus. They faced ridicule and persecution every day because of their faith. They were tired from walking the narrow path and discouraged. This letter reminds them and us about the example of faith set by so many of the heroes of the Old Testament from Abraham on up. Their road was not easy. But they persevered because they believed in the promise God made to them. Because of their faith, they kept their eyes fixed not on the difficulty of the road but on the reward awaiting them at the destination.

This letter reminds us also that the trials and difficulties we face along the way are meant to strengthen us. Just as our muscles grow stronger when they pick up heavy objects, so our spirit becomes stronger when we face difficulties with faith and patience. By accepting the challenges we encounter along this narrow path that Jesus marked out for us, we grow in faith. He tells us that many will attempt to enter through the narrow gate but will not be strong enough. We can be sure that we will be strong enough if we have persevered through the difficulties life puts in our way.

We are all called to be saints. God has called each of us to live good and holy lives. It is never easy to walk in the footsteps of Christ. It requires discipline and sacrifice. Because the path the world marks out for us seems so much easier and more alluring, we might want to give up along the way. But we keep fixed in our minds and hearts that we are on a journey to our heavenly homeland. For this reason, we gather here today to receive the Body and Blood of Christ which is food to sustain us on this pilgrimage. He will strengthen our drooping hands and weak knees. He will remind us that though few choose this narrow path, we are not alone. We are all journeying together with Jesus at our side. By his grace, we hope to persevere through the obstacles in the way until we are welcomed into the banquet prepared for us in heaven.

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