The Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Is. 66:18-21, Heb. 12:5-7, 11-13, Luke 13:22-30]

Fr. StephenImagine that a dozen terrorists carrying automatic weapons suddenly enter the church. One of them walks up to the abbess, points a weapon at her forehead and orders her to deny the existence of God or be shot. Mother Gail begins to tremble and her face grows pale. For a few moments she does not reply both because she is afraid and because she is praying for the courage to profess her faith. Then she speaks from the depths of her heart: “I believe in God the Father who created me, and in Jesus Christ, his Son, who redeemed me by dying on a cross, and in the Holy Spirit who gives me divine life and perseverance.

Hearing her profession of faith the terrorist in anger pulls the trigger and the noise of his weapon explodes throughout the church. Next, he points his weapon at my forehead and another terrorist does the same to you, saying: “Deny God or be shot.” What will we do? Every Sunday we proclaim our faith in God when we pray the Creed together. But would we proclaim our faith to a terrorist? Are we strong enough to die for what we believe like the seven monks of Atlas? Or, do we have drooping hands and weak knees like St. Peter, who denied knowing Christ three times?

You have strengthened my drooping hands and weak knees by your support and love. I have experienced much consolation during the past week. I am so grateful to God for calling me to be a monk and a priest. I am grateful to all of you because you have shown me God’s love, you echoed God’s call to me. You helped me respond and you have increased my happiness. Because of you I am much stronger than I could ever be without you. Thank you!

But of myself, of ourselves, none of us will ever have hands and knees, hearts and wills strong enough to persevere in our faith, or to be martyrs. These are beyond all human strength. They are gifts from God that the Lord urges us to pray for. He says: “Great distress will come upon the earth … Watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things and to stand before the Son of Man.” [Lk. 21:23, 36]. In today’s celebration I pray that all of us may receive the grace of perseverance, perhaps even to die for our faith.

Mary Assumed into heavenLast week the celebration of Mary’s Assumption into heaven lifted up our eyes to the purpose and goal of our lives and our faith. We are called to be sharers in God’s own divine nature, citizens of heaven. Our slight, momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. Isaiah foresees people from all nations entering into God’s glory. That is worth dying for, just as Jesus died for us. He calls us to a feast in the kingdom of God, and even now to receive his own body and blood under the form of bread and wine, because the Eucharist is the source of strength for our drooping hands and weak knees. It is our sustenance on the journey home.

Home is a place where you knock and they have to let you in. But in today’s gospel we hear a parable about people for whom heaven is not their home. They find the door locked. They knock and they cry out, “Sir, open the door for us.” The householder replies, “I do not know where you come from … away from me you evil doers.” When asked whether the saved are few in number Jesus does not answer the question directly. Instead he paints of picture of heaven and hell: we see people coming from east and west, north and south taking their places at a feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and we see others who are outside wailing & grinding their teeth. Jesus always affirmed the existence of ultimate ecstasy and agony.

St. Bernard urges us to go down into hell while we are still alive so that after death we may escape it. In Sermon 16 on the Song of Songs he writes: “I dread the thought of hell, … terror unnerves me at the thought of the immense fires and uncontrollable storm, The lake of unquenchable fire … the pit that swallows up sinners where demons roar … I recoil in horror from the gnawing worm, the rolling fires, the smoke and sulfurous mist, the encroaching vastness of the dark. Who will turn my eyes into a spring of tears that I may forestall that weeping and gnashing of teeth, the unyielding shackles that strangle, burn and never consume?

Jesus teaches us that the door is narrow by which we enter the kingdom of heaven, so narrow that it is humanly impossible to enter it. It is a gift of God. That is why we must pray for it, that is why we are people of prayer, a priestly people, who worship, praise, bless, and glorify God; and who intercede for all people east and west, north and south, that all will have the grace of faith and perseverance, so that heaven will be our home, and when we knock they will have to let us in! Like the monks of Atlas we pray not only for ourselves but also for our terrorists. We want to take hold of their drooping hands and lead them into heaven with us. That is what it means to be a priestly people.