Contextually, the subject of all three of today’s readings is the nation of Israel. In our first reading Isaiah prophesies of the time when the LORD will "come to gather nations of every language" (Isa. 66, 18). From among these nations the LORD will take some "as priests and Levites" (Isa. 66,20). Isaiah is seeking to communicate that it is through Israel that God enters into covenant with people of all races, languages, and nationalities. Put simply, the covenant is not given to Israel for its own sake, but for the sake of all humanity. It is to Jewish Christians that the entire letter to the Hebrews is addressed. Finally, in today’s Gospel when Jesus speaks of the first being last and the last being first, he is speaking of Israel and "the nations."
In our Gospel readings over these past several weeks, taken from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had some pretty uncomfortable words for us, just as Isaiah had for ancient Israel. In Luke’s narrative these passages are linked as part of Jesus’ only journey to Jerusalem, which ends with his passion and death. In these passages, as he begins the final days of his earthly ministry, our Lord speaks very directly. He is concerned that his message not be missed. His message is best summed up as "the reign of God is at hand" (Mk. 1,15). Jesus’ ushering in of God’s reign is the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
There is always a lot of speculation about who will be saved and who will not. Such speculation is usually pointless, unless it is self-directed. When asked the question, "Lord, will only a few people be saved," Jesus responds with the answer, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate" (Lk 13,23-24). This answer remains the answer to any inquiry about salvation. Of course, it prompts the question, how do we enter the narrow gate? The direct answer to this question is quite straightforward. We enter the narrow gate by loving God and loving our neighbor. In these two commandments, Jesus tells us, are contained the whole Law and all the prophets. However, it does not take much experience on our part to learn that, like many actions, loving perfectly is easier said than done.
In our second reading today, taken from the letter to the Hebrews, we read about enduring trials as discipline from the Lord. Whoever God loves, the author tells us, "he disciplines; he scourges every [child] he acknowledges" (Heb. 12,6). This is true of Israel, it is true for the Church, and it is true for each disciple. In recent days we have read much about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s sense of being cut-off from God for many years of her life. So acute was her sense of abandonment that at one point she wrote to her spiritual director: "Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear" (Time magazine Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith, by David Van Biema).
Nonetheless, while she was denied the comfort and consolation she so desired from the One to whom she had pledged herself with such great fidelity, she still found him in a thousand places, or, rather, in a thousand faces. For this great missionary of God’s love, as for any true disciple of Christ, it was impossible to say, "I love God, but I do not love my neighbor." According to Mother Teresa, it was in his dying on the Cross that God made "himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one." Jesus' hunger, she continues, is what "you and I must find" and alleviate. Jesus, her beloved, was not completely absent from her, a prayer she wrote proves this: "Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive" Time magazine Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith,, by David Van Biema). My dear friends, Teresa recognized that Christ almost always comes to us as a fellow human being in a distressing disguise. "Our poor people," she said, "do not need sympathy; they do not need pity from us, they really need love and compassion" (Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center ). Today is the ninety-seventh anniversary of Mother Teresa’s birth. Through her life she showed us that Jesus not only invites us to lay down our lives, but to them lay them down for him. Christian songwriter Michael Card sings about this beautifully:
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed/As they look to
one another in an instant it is clear/Only Jesus is visible for they've
both disappeared” (Distressing Disguise).
In the novel Absolute Truths, by Susan Howatch, Martin Darrow, who has recently gone through a self-induced personal catastrophe, tells Bishop Charles Ashworth, who is himself in the midst of a personal crisis after his wife’s death, how good it is, when going through a difficult time, to have a frank conversation with "someone who's gone through hell lately." This leads Martin to comment: "It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us."
Indeed, God did come into the world to scream alongside us. In his agony on the cross Jesus shouted these words from the twenty-second Psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15,34). It is from this agony that we gain hope. Our hope resides in this God who brings life from death, but the journey from death to life is not painless.
So, how will Christ recognize us at our Judgment? One way will be by how we responded to the challenges we faced in this life. Another, perhaps more important criterion of recognition, will be the way we treated and cared for others, even in the midst of our own pain. Let us not forget what we read at the end of the same chapter of Hebrews from which today’s second reading is taken: "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb, 12,29). May we also keep in mind that God’s reign was not put on hold at Christ’s Ascension. Rather, ushering in the reign of God, preparing the wedding feast of the Lamb, of which this Eucharist is but a foretaste, has been entrusted to us until that day, when the last having been made first and the first last, we "recline at table in the kingdom of God" (Lk 13,29).