TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR C
Some years ago, when a friend was on sabbatical in Rome, I made plans to visit him during the week allotted for travel. I made reservations for a hotel outside Florence that turned out to be much farther away from the city than I had thought, in a village that was served by only one bus each day. One evening, after touring and having dinner in Florence, we went to the bus terminal awaiting the boarding call for the only evening bus to Bivigliamo. We had become so engrossed in a conversation about some topic or other that we never heard the announcement, and only noticed that it was departure time as the bus was pulling away from the terminal without us. Our penalty for that lack of attention was a rather expensive taxi fare.
“After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then you will stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say in reply, ’I do not know where you are from.’”
As I mature, some of my deepest regrets have to do with opportunities that I missed, either because I was inattentive as in Florence, or because I did not think that I had the ability that the opportunity called for, or because I was immature or because I was interested in something else that seemed valuable at the time but really was not. And I am sure that I am not alone in having such regrets. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the oft-quoted verse, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”
Not all of my missed opportunities have been life-changing; many have been simply like the bus that got away. But the liturgy for this Sunday in the waning days of summer warns us that there is one opportunity that, if missed, will cause us eternal regret. It is the opportunity to get through that narrow door into God’s eternal wedding feast while that door is still open. Latecomers can take comfort from the fact that many saints did not squeeze through in their days of youthful innocence – though there are more teenaged and even pre-teenaged saints than most people realize. Many saints got off to a relatively late start; and, like Augustine, Patrick, Hildegard, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, they had need of lots and lots of grace from God’s infinite mercy to get them on the steep road and through the narrow gate.
So, how can we lessen the chances that we will find ourselves locked out? The Scriptures have a few suggestions today.
The first is: be alert to the invitation. Isaiah today exults in the fact that the invitation extends far beyond the borders of the Promised Land. And he promises that the people who hear and respond will converge on the New Jerusalem “on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries.” We must be aware that the invitation can take unexpected forms. A man who began a campaign to have a safety net placed under the Golden Gate Bridge after he survived his own suicide attempt remarked, “If only one person had come up to me on that bridge and asked me how I was, I would not have jumped.” The response to a needy person can be the most acceptable and effective response to God’s invitation.
Secondly, look for the guideposts that lead you by shortest and most direct route to the door that is still open. When I was on the mini-sabbatical three years ago, our guide in Rome pointed out that there is a tall obelisk like the one in St. Peter’s Square outside each of the major basilicas in the Eternal City. They functioned like a primitive GPS for pilgrims, she told us. Visitors entering through the Flaminian Gate could see the tops of the obelisks and use them as guides through the narrow, winding roads of the city. The guideposts that we have are meditation on the Sacred Scriptures, a thoughtful and reverent reception of the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist, the practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. They will, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “make straight paths for our feet.”
Finally, be open to surprises because God is ready to do more for us than we can ever dream about. Jesus’ hearers were, no doubt, taken aback by his assurance that those who make it through the narrow door will find themselves in the company of not only Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets, but people from the north and south, the east and the west.
A final thought: the welcome we extend to strangers may very well determine the welcome we receive at the door of heaven. In these days, with so much talk about walls, we have built a wall in this parish. We call it “The Welcome Wall.” Its stones are photos of parishioners whose faces would delight Isaiah as the living fulfillment of his ancient prophecy.