Judgement Day: the narrow door

Judgement Day: the narrow door

During World Youth Day, I was interested (but not surprised) to learn that pilgrims wanted to know more about heaven and hell.

As chaplain, I’d spend each day with a different group — exploring Krakow, attending events, finding food, waiting in queue. (There were a lot of queues!) In conversation, I kept to ‘secular subjects.’ I’d start conversations about school, or politics, or the footy, or travel, or whatever.

Conversation turned to the supernatural or spiritual only when a pilgrim raised those subjects. And then the audience would grow. Suddenly there were three people in the conversation, or four, or six, or more. It became informal catechesis — pilgrims would ask questions, and I’d do my best to give the Catholic answers. And then the discussion always — always — moved to heaven and hell.

So I can imagine that the question Jesus fields in today’s Gospel — “Sir, will there be only a few saved?” — was probably asked of him many times.

Our Lord replies in typical fashion. He doesn’t give a direct answer. He doesn’t say, “Only a few will be saved,” as the Pharisees taught. He doesn’t say, “Most or all will be saved,” as the modern world teaches.

Instead, he moves the focus away from general statistics and towards the individual. He looks his interlocutor in the eye: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door.”

I wish I’d thought of this gospel in Poland, when I fielded similar questions. I did, at least, apply its principles. What Jesus wants is clear:

  • he wants us to be responsible for our choices;
  • he wants to lead us to heaven;
  • but he needs us to follow his lead.

We have to do our part. It’s not enough to have a superficial knowledge of Christ. We have to have a living, lasting, growing friendship with him. Friendship always involves effort and self-sacrifice, time and energy.

We don’t earn our way into heaven. Even the greatest saints are in heaven because of God’s mercy, not because of justice. But imagine what it must be like at the moment of judgement, standing before Jesus. There we are: our sins exposed by the light of truth; our lukewarm love ice cold in comparison to the burning fire of divine love.

It must take a lot of humility to stand there and seek the Lord’s mercy. It must require profound intimacy with Jesus; a sincere confidence that his love is greater than our sin. Standing there before him must demand a self-forgetful love — I think I could stand it only for his sake, not my own.

It would be easier, less painful, more self-satisfying, to turn away, to demand his departure. To condemn ourselves to hell. This is why Jesus insists we strive in this life to enter through the narrow door.

So let’s ask ourselves: what more can I do to know Jesus? To love him? To serve him?

How is my prayer life? Daily prayer and frequent confession are essential aspects of the Christian life.

How do I relate to my neighbours? We love God only as much as we love the person we like least.

How do I mould my character? Habitual acts of self-denial foster self-discipline and freedom of the heart.

But of course, our Lord doesn’t ask us to navigate the narrow door all by ourselves. He constantly helps and strengthens us, especially through holy communion and the other sacraments.

He loves us so much. Let’s try our best to enter the narrow door.

How to “admonish the sinner” in 5 easy steps

How to “admonish the sinner” in 5 easy steps

Of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the hardest one I think — the least pleasant one, certainly — is to admonish the sinner. Maybe it’s better to leave that one to other, holier, people.

And yet, if we are to become the people of mercy Pope Francis asks us to be, if we really want to be “the face of the Father’s mercy,” then we have to enact all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. So get used to the idea of admonishing the sinner, and get cracking. (Echoing a certain presidential candidate, “consider yourself admonished!”)

Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 7:36-49) provides us with two examples of our Lord exercising his divine mercy. The mercy he shows the unnamed woman — not to mention the gratitude and affection he shows her — speaks for itself. But he also shows mercy to Simon the Pharisee. He tactfully and lovingly admonishes him. From this Gospel, and a few other scriptural passages, I’ve deduced how to admonish sinners in four easy steps.

STEP ONE. Admonish yourself first. As our Lord so famously teaches, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Mt 7:5.)

  • Examine your conscience. Go to confession if need be. Before you talk the talk, make sure you walk the walk!

STEP TWO. Only admonish close friends and relatives. Simon had invited Jesus to his house. Our Lord admonishes him in the context of an established relationship. A respectful and maybe even affectionate relationship.

  • Don’t make it your business to admonish acquaintances and frenemies. It is love which will give your admonishment authority, so make sure anyone you admonish knows you love them. Consider building up some capital: 9 words of gratitude or encouragement, for every word of admonishment or correction.

STEP THREE. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Our Lord mentions Simon’s neglect of details and mild inhospitality, but only to illustrate a much more important point: do not permit prejudice and self-satisfaction to blind you.

  • The minor defects of others can foster gratitude, rather than complaint. To quote St Josemaría Escrivá:

    Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’

    Admonition is only called for in the case of substantial sins and defects, which are causing real harm.

STEP FOUR. Pray on it. The Gospels give us only small glimpses into our Lord’s prayer life. It’s apparent he would often withdraw from crowds, and even his own disciples, to spend time alone with God. If we propose to imitate the Lord’s public actions (and as disciples we should!), we must also imitate his habit of prayer.

  • Spend time alone, or before the Tabernacle, examining your motivation. Why do you propose to admonish this person? Is it borne of charity, or envy? Charity, or vengeance? Charity, or pettiness? If the answer is anything other than charity, ABORT MISSION!!

STEP FIVE. This one’s important! Admonish a person in private. Have you noticed how our Lord prefaces his words to Simon? “Simon, I have something to say to you.” (Lk 7:40) The Gospel doesn’t specify details, but I like to imagine that the conversation that follows is private, and we only know about it because Simon, in his humility, later made public the Lord’s parable and his correction.

  • Fraternal correction is always humbling, but it should never be humiliating. Don’t admonish others via Facebook, blog or Twitter! Speak to them one on one.

Here concludes my five easy steps to admonishing sinners. Maybe calling them easy is a bit of a stretch. But anyway, there’s five of them.

For a more detailed look on why and how to minister “fraternal correction,” I recommend this document: http://www.josemariaescriva.info/docs/fraternal-correction.pdf

Lent is not a test of endurance — it’s a test of love

Lent is not a test of endurance — it’s a test of love

Hearing about the temptation of Jesus is a very good way for us to start Lent.

Maybe you’re like me, and you made a Lenten Promise on Ash Wednesday, and four days later you’ve already broken it. Or maybe you forgot to make a Lenten Promise completely, and now Lent has already started.

Either way, it doesn’t feel very good. It feels like Lent is over for us. We’ve missed the train, or we’ve fallen off. But we can’t give in to discouragement. Discouragement is a great temptation. It’s one of the devil’s favourite tricks.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that even Jesus suffered temptation. Even though he is God, Jesus is like us in all things but sin. So the devil played his tricks on him too. If Jesus suffered temptation, then why shouldn’t we?

So let’s reject the temptation of discouragement, and start again. We might have missed the train at the station, or fallen off already, but it’s easy enough to jump on that train right now.

In that spirit, let’s talk about the Lenten Promise for a moment.

Some people think BIG. For example, they might give up biscuits for the whole of Lent. But that can become a test of endurance, which eventually invites failure. It’s like travelling on the roof of the train, hanging on for dear life. It’s no wonder people fall off!

Sometimes it’s better to think small. St Thérèse always has good advice:

“Little things done out of love are those that charm the Heart of Christ… On the contrary, the most brilliant deeds, when done without love, are but nothingness.”

Lent is not a test of endurance. Lent is a test of love! So rather than travelling on the roof of the train, maybe it’s better to travel the normal way, in the carriage, on a seat, but with the window open now and then, even though its cold and windy, and we’d prefer it closed.

Here is an example of a small Lenten Promise, done with love:

“At breakfast time I didn’t have my normal cup of tea. I had a cup of hot water instead. It’s not much of a sacrifice is it? But this is the important part: when fasting is an act of love, it is always accompanied by prayer.

So while I was having my cup of water, I prayed. I spoke to the Lord Jesus and told him that I was doing this as an act of love. I prayed for others. I asked him to answer their prayers. And I asked him to help me grow in faith and love.”

That’s what a small Lenten Promise looks like. It’s just one cup of tea, first thing in the morning: a little thing, done with love. You don’t give up your other drinks. Just the first one, at breakfast time. The window of the train is open, but only for a short time. Not long enough to fall out!

But remember — if you do fall off the train again, don’t be discouraged. Even Jesus suffered temptation. Just get back on that train, as many times as needed, until the train arrives at its destination: Easter Sunday!

This homily is shamelessly plagiarised from Fr Aidan Kieran, who blogged about “The Little Way of Fasting” one year ago. His post was reblogged this Lent, and it has become viral. If you haven’t read the original, I strongly recommend it! The Little Way of Fasting, by Fr Aidan Kieran.

Both my Masses this morning are school Masses, so I’m effectively preaching to the students. For a deeper take on fasting and penance, read Fr Ray Blake, who writes with typical wit and humility: I hate fasting.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh

Gold, frankincense and myrrh

Several weeks ago, some parishioners of mine showed me a beautiful set of boxes they dust off every Christmas.

The boxes were new and ornate, but made to look old — 1001 Arabian Nights old. The interiors were lined with red satin and contained gold, frankincense and myrrh. I was confident I could find something similar online, and sure enough, I found it:

"Deluxe Three Box Set" — www.threekingsgifts.com

“The Original Gifts of Christmas” — www.threekingsgifts.com

These boxes struck me as very Montessorian. I’ve blogged about Montessorian pedagogy before. It’s an effective and fruitful way of catechesis. Hence my interest in buying these myself. I located a “deluxe set” on Amazon which set me back $50, including postage and handling. Quite reasonable, really.

The chest of gold is octagonal, and contains a glass globe filled with water and large flakes of gold. The chest of frankincense is round, and contains large grains of incense. (I’m chewing on one now, which is a Mid-East custom apparently. It’s a pleasant tasting gum, but not so pleasant I’d do it again.) The chest of myrrh is square, and also contains large grains of incense. I’ve always presumed that the myrrh presented at Bethlehem was in the form of oil, but of course the Scriptures do not specify. It could just as easily have been presented in resin form. (I haven’t chewed on the myrrh, though apparently it is good for toothache!)

I put the set to good use during today’s Epiphany Mass. Some of the children who frequent Sunday Mass assumed the identities of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. (In other words, they hung hastily prepared name tags around their necks.)

three-gifts

During the homily, I called each “wise man” forward, and he processed from the back of the church bearing his box. At the sanctuary steps, he opened his box and showed his gift to the congregation before kneeling at the crib and placing his gift before the infant Jesus. While all that was happening, I shared some thoughts on each gift:

three-kings-gold

Even now, gold evokes royalty, and gold is a gift fit for a king. Especially the King of Kings!

We are called to join Melchior by presenting Jesus with our own gold. We can to that literally by giving money to the Church, and to charity. But we can present other sorts of gold also. Think of the old saying: “if you want to know how rich you are, think of all the things you have that money can’t buy.”

Our friends, our family, health, happiness — we can present these treasures to the Lord too. We can thank and praise him for these gifts, and detach ourselves from them by freely offering them back to God.

three-kings-frankincense

Incense, then as now, was used in worship. Caspar’s gift was fit for God, which is exactly who Jesus is: the Word Incarnate; God made man.

We can join Caspar by offering our own worship, especially at Mass. There’s no greater way to offer worship, than to participate in the Mass. But there’s an additional, more metaphorical way by which we can present the Lord with frankincense. Clouds of sweet-smelling incense rising towards Heaven evokes “the odour of sanctity,” or as St Paul puts it, “the fragrance of Christ.” (2 Cor 2:15)

Our own gift of incense to God is a desire to live a noble life. To show understanding and friendship to neighbours. To bring peace and joy to friends. To show mercy and affection to enemies. In other words, to make “the fragrance of Christ” our own.

three-kings-myrrh

The ancient Egyptians used myrrh in mummification. And the Jews used myrrh to anoint the bodies of the dead and prepare them for burial.

Hence Balthasar’s gift of myrrh evokes death. It’s a prophecy of the Lord’s passion. The next time myrrh is mentioned in the Gospels is at Calvary: “They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused to drink it.” (Mk 15:23)

We can imitate Balthasar’s gift of myrrh by offering sacrifice, especially in the little things. The hot weather, a stubbed toe, illness and tiredness are common discomforts which we can offer to the Lord in place of myrrh. We can smile at those who annoy us, hold our tongue and listen to others attentively, and make good use of the time God gives us.

I think anyone who spends any time on the Internet is familiar with the old joke about “three wise women” who aren’t mentioned in the Bible:

three-wise-women

There’s no doubt that the three gifts of wise men are less practical. Tradition does hold, however, that the gold and frankincense financed the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and our Lady kept the myrrh in safekeeping, until three decades later she anointed her son’s body in preparation for his burial. So the gifts were certainly auspicious.

The greatest symbol of the Epipany however, is not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but the star which guided the Magi to Jesus. The star of Bethlehem is evocative of the light of Christ, which we carry within us — the fruit of our baptism and Confirmation, replenished by prayer and holy communion. In the word’s of today’s Solemn Blessing:

Since in all confidence you follow Christ,
who today appeared in the world as a light shining in darkness,
may God make you, too, a light for your brothers and sisters.

Amen.

The Visitation

The Visitation

Luke tells us in today’s Gospel that Mary went as quickly as she could to Elizabeth’s. Did you notice that? Mary was a teenager when all this occurred. Like all young people, she was excited and wasted no time.

It’s a good reminder for us to foster spiritual childhood. To cultivate the enthusiasm and the generosity of youth.

When I was a teenager, I remember thinking that it must be easier for old people to be holy. I knew then (as I know now) lots of old people who were holy. So I thought holiness is like experience and wisdom. It comes with age.

But now that I’m older, and a little bit wiser, I know that’s not true. I know that young people can perform heroic feats of holiness. Great acts of generosity towards God and towards their neighbour. Young people are idealistic, and demanding of themselves, and so generous. Again and again at Adelaide’s Catholic Youth Festival a few weeks ago, I was moved by the generosity of the young people I was with, some new to the faith. They are willing to give everything to God. To give everything in service of their neighbour.

But what about us? As we get older, it’s easy to become complacent. We can become attached to small pleasures; unwilling to offer sacrifice. So here we have the example of our Blessed Mother — a teenager — who hastens to Elizabeth without delay. We can ask her to pray for us in these final days of Advent, that we can share her youthful spirit of service.

 

And then we have the example of Elizabeth and John. The unborn baby leaps for joy in his mother’s womb. I imagine every mother here can confirm the veracity of that tale.

Doctors confirm that babies recognise familiar voices, and respond to their environment well before they are born. Moreover, the bond between a mother and her child is profound. John would have literally shared his mother’s joy. The emotions which moved Elizabeth moved him too. And vice versa.

So Elizabeth and her child share each other’s joy. Please God, we’ll each have the opportunity on Christmas Day to share the joy of family and friends. And what a blessing, if like Mary and her child, we can be a source of joy. So we can ask that favour of our Blessed Mother too. That she prays for each of us, that we can be a source of joy to others.

 

Today’s prayers, today’s readings, these last days before Christmas all point us to the wonder of the Incarnation. The scandal of the Incarnation.

God became one of us. God assumed our human nature, so that he could redeem us in and through our humanity. And then he asks us to assist him. To become co-redeemers. To offer our own humanity — the daily humdrum of life; small sacrifices; moments of joy — for the salvation of the world.

Christmas invites us to contemplate the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ. In the history of the Church, some mystics have suggested that the Lord’s sacred humanity is like a diving board, which allows us to plunge into the mystery of God. Into the wonder of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit.

But St Teresa of Avila — one of history’s greatest mystics, a Doctor of the Church — rejects that idea. The sacred humanity of Jesus, she says, and the scandal of the Incarnation, and the mystery of Christmas — none of this is a “diving board” we leap from. It’s not something we leave behind. It is the ocean we swim in when we are immersed in God.

Mary carried God in her womb. She nursed God in her arms. And at this very Mass, we can hold God in our hands or receive him on our tongue. Because the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.

Bartimaeus and the JM logo

Bartimaeus and the JM logo

The Year of Mercy logo is not very beautiful. I’d go so far as to say it’s ugly. But I wouldn’t go to the stake on that claim. Horses for courses.

Nonetheless, I do like some of the symbolism behind the logo. It most obviously evokes the parable of the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders:

IMG_0317
But I think the logo also evokes another gospel passage. Today’s gospel. The healing of Bartimaeus.

I think we can draw four points out of today’s gospel which are very pertinent to the year of mercy, and more specifically, to our response to God’s mercy.

1. Bartimaeus knew he was blind; he seeks God’s help.

Bartimaeus calls out; he requests help. When the Lord asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?” he doesn’t hesitate. “Rabbuni, let me see again.”

Do we know our own blindness? Can we view our neighbours as God views them? That’s true vision. Just as importantly, can we see ourselves as Jesus sees us?

2. The world turns against Bartimaeus; he defies the world.

When the crowd turns on him, Bartimaeus is very vulnerable. He is blind, he is surrounded by hostile forces, but still he perseveres. Any faith worthy of the name requires the same sort of courage.

Faith starts with the humility of recognising ourselves as needy of salvation, it entails interior and exterior struggle, and it culminates in an intimate encounter with Jesus. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Intimacy is what God seeks, and our vulnerability is its catalyst.

This is one of the reasons the Church doesn’t countenance general absolution, except in emergencies. Sacramental confession models the life of faith: recognising one’s needs, making oneself vulnerable, and seeking an intimate encounter with the Lord.

3. Jesus stops and gives Bartimaeus personal attention.

The decisive moment in today’s Gospel is this direct, personal encounter between God and man. They are face to face: God with his desire to heal, and Bartimaeus with his desire to be healed. Two freedoms; two converging desires.

Bartimaeus receives physical healing, but I bet a spiritual healing occurs too. Perhaps his intimate encounter with the Lord enables him to see the world as our Lord sees it. What a wondrous gift of sight that would be! That’s why I think of today’s Gospel when I contemplate a particular detail of the Year of Mercy logo:

One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ.

I think divine mercy is just like that. Nothing is more pleasing to God, than us seeking and him ministering his divine mercy. But having received his mercy, we’re then commissioned to exercise his mercy. We receive healing and power – power to love our enemies: to pray for them; to show them affection. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

4. Bartimaeus followed Jesus along the road.

The Gospel ends with Bartimaeus’s conversion. Mark says he followed Jesus along the road. He followed in the way and the truth and the life of Jesus. That’s the metaphorical meaning.

The literal meaning, though, is no less resonant. Immediately after this healing, our Lord locates a donkey, and rides into Jerusalem on a carpet of palms. In less than a week, Jesus is dead. So Bartimaeus literally follows Jesus to the cross.

It’s good for us to remember that, and imitate it of course. There comes a time in every life when suffering is unavoidable, and death awaits us all. Our task as Christians is to unite our suffering and death with the Lord’s. Then our own crosses become part of the Lord’s redemptive sacrifice, bringing graces to others, and shedding mercy on the whole world.

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