There is a very endearing story about St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. Immediately after his ordination to the priesthood, he was assigned to a small parish in an obscure French village called Ars.
As he made his way, on foot, towards that village, he came to a crossroads and did not know which way to go. There was a little boy there, so the saint asked him,
“Young man, which one of these roads leads to Ars?”
“It’s that way, Father,” he replied.
St. John Vianney then smiled at the boy and said,
“You have shown me the way to Ars. Now, I will show you the way to heaven.”
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus shows the disciples and all of us the way to heaven, and the way to greatness in the Kingdom of God.
He takes a small child—perhaps the same age as the one who showed St. John Vianney the way to Ars—and shows them that this is the way to greatness in the Kingdom of God.
If you want to be great in the Kingdom, then you have to think small! If you want to be exalted to the heights of heaven, then you have to be willing to take a step down in humility. You have to become the least, and the last, and the servant of all. That is how we reach the heights of heaven.
One of the greatest stories ever written about the journey from this earth to the heights of heaven is The Divine Comedy by Italian author Dante Alighieri. It begins on a very somber tone. The narrator, Dante himself, is telling us where he is: not only geographically and physically, but spiritually, as well. He writes:
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.
He had lost the way; lost his bearings; he was in the dark and all alone. Then suddenly, in those opening lines of the poem, his entire perspective changes. He looks up, and off in the distance he sees the mountain of God shining in the sun. He knows which way he must go, the path he must walk to find that eternal destination for which all of us are created.
Yet he quickly discovers, as he begins to ascend that mountain, that the road to heaven will not be an easy one. Three ferocious beasts block the way: a leopard, a lion, and a ravenous she-wolf.
The leopard, beautiful to behold but very dangerous indeed, represents the sensual pleasures of this life. She remains ever before his face, forcing him back down the path at every turn.
The hungry lion, with his head held high and threatening, represents pride, arrogance and our own self-importance deep within. These are the very things that the disciples encounter on their journey in the Gospel this morning, arguing about who is the greatest; who is the most important; who is the alpha-dog in the pack.
The she-wolf is the embodiment of all those cravings we have for the things of this life only; she is greed, avarice, and the insatiable longing for the things of this world.
There is no getting past these beasts, and Dante must retreat back down the mountain, devastated. Whether he likes it or not, he must humbly take a step down and curtail his ascent to that mountain height.
But just at that moment, the poet Virgil appears; a figure from the ancient world, a person whom Dante knew about and very much respected. He approaches Dante and assures him that he will be a guide to the ascent of that mountain, but that the direction they must go to begin that journey is down!
In fact, they must go all the way down to the depths of hell itself. Virgil takes Dante into the heart of the Inferno, and points out the entire history of sin and all its awful consequences. Dante is forced to witness utter depravity and the hopelessness that reigns in that place; it is enough to make him physically sick.
Yet Virgil, his guide, is relentless as he makes Dante confront the reality of sin, forces him to look it in the face, and take accountability for it. Dante must understand the overwhelming need has for a redeemer and for the mercy and the grace of God.
It is then and only then that Dante begins to move upward to the realm of the Purgatorio, where the souls of the just, those made right with God through faith, are being purified and purged of all selfishness and self love.
Until, finally, a new guide, Beatrice, leads him into the realm of the Paradiso, paradise itself, where he enjoys the beatific vision along with all the saints and the angels of God. It is a beautiful story about a man’s journey to the heights of heaven, even though he had to go through hell—literally—to get there!
Today, where do we find ourselves on our own journey towards God’s Kingdom? Are we experiencing, perhaps, what Dante writes about: darkness, confusion, the right road lost? Or have we begun to see the path God wants us to follow, beckoning in the distance?
Like Dante, we, too, must acknowledge that the sensual pleasures of this world, the insatiable greed and avarice that so easily beset us, and our pride and self importance are not the way to true happiness in this world, nor in the world to come.
If we were to walk with Virgil through the Purgatorio, or even through the Inferno, what are the sins he would point out to us today? We must acknowledge those places where our path to God has become obscured.
Because this morning, Christ Himself—not Virgil the poet—comes to us in word and in Sacrament. He comes to each one of us and says:
Show me where you have left the right road that leads to me.
Show me the sins that are in your life, the ones that are keeping you from growing closer to me and perhaps keeping you from my Kingdom.
And most importantly, show me your sorrow for those sins; the true repentance without which there is no forgiveness.
Show me that. Show me the way of humility.
And I will show you the way to heaven, and the way to eternal life.