Like it or not, the summer is almost over. School will begin in just a few short days and life will take on a much quicker pace. Hopefully you had the chance this summer to take a nice vacation.
A few weeks ago I announced that Fr. Verdelotti was returning from his summer vacation, and I thanked God for that! I was very much looking forward to taking a few days off myself. That very day I received an email from a close friend who is a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist. She is part of an order of religious sisters and brothers who have convents and religious houses across the country, and in places like Rome and Jerusalem.
She emailed me about the pilgrimage that some of the sisters in formation were about to take later that week, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy land. They had been planning it all year. In the email she said, “Father, I know it is last minute, but we are wondering if there is even a remote chance that you could join us as our priest on this pilgrimage.”
I was shocked. The first thought that crossed my mind was to send this brief reply: “Are you crazy?” How could I possibly go on a trip like that with just a few days’ notice? Instead, I looked at my calendar and saw that I had planned to take a week’s vacation anyway at that same time. I would need to add a few more days to it; when I looked at those days, they were all wide open. That never happens! It was the providence of God, and suddenly I found myself on Pilgrimage with the Franciscan Sisters and Brothers of the Eucharist.
It was the most remarkable and beautiful trip I have ever taken. We went to Bethlehem, where Christ was born. We had Mass in Nazareth, where Christ grew up, and in Galilee where he preached, healed the sick and performed miracles. We celebrated the Eucharist in the place where He instituted that Blessed Sacrament, and on Calvary, where He died. We knelt down and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the empty tomb where He rose again from the dead. I will never forget what God did in our lives on that pilgrimage.
I mention that today because our readings for this weekend talk about the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that God is planning, a pilgrimage that all of us are invited to. In fact, God intends to bring all the nations of the earth on that pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem. As He says in our first reading, through the prophet Isaiah:
I come to gather the nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory…They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the Lord.
—Isaiah 66:18, 20
Isaiah is not saying that God will literally put us on mules and camels and bring us into Jerusalem. He is talking about God’s eternal plan of salvation. At the beginning, after the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God began immediately to put a plan together to redeem us and save us from sin and death. That plan involved calling together a people, a single nation among all the others, to be holy and set apart for God.
That nation was Israel, whom God brought into the Promised Land and gave the City of Jerusalem, where they built a temple to worship Him alone and follow His commandments. From this nation a Savior was born, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. He came to suffer and die to redeem not only Israel, but so that all the nations of the world might be saved. Jesus Himself, in the Gospel of Luke this morning, puts it this way:
People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
That is God’s eternal plan for our salvation; it is the pilgrimage of a lifetime, one that begins right here and will continue for eternal life. Today we can ask ourselves, in light of that journey which God has called us all to participate in:
Are we ready to make that pilgrimage?
Are we willing to make whatever change is necessary, to conform our lives to God’s will and enter that kingdom?
It is not simply automatic.
When the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist invited me to join them on their pilgrimage, I did not simply show up at the airport! I had to check and make sure my passport was in order; I had to go out and purchase some last minute items for the trip; I had to pack my bags; I needed to make a good confession to prepare spiritually for that pilgrimage. The same is true for us as we prepare for the pilgrimage that God is calling us to. We have to get ready!
There is a beautiful story about St. Francis of Assisi, who was asked what he planned to do one day. He replied that he was going to work in his garden. The person said, “What if this was the last day of your life? Then what would you do?” He paused for a minute, thoughtfully, and then replied, “Well, I suppose I would go and work in my garden.” His life was in order. He was already conformed to Christ, and so he was totally free to follow God in the ordinary rhythms of life and ready for whatever each day might bring.
Blessed Pope John XXIII, closer to our own time, was asked the very same question: “What if this was the last day of your life?” Do you know what his reply was? He said, “My bags are packed.” Can you imagine yourself responding that way? What a beautiful way to live.
Now most of us, if we are honest, will admit that we are not St. Francis of Assisi; we are not Blessed John XXIII. We are still striving and trying to conform our lives to God’s will and to follow Christ as closely as we can. That is why Christ, in the gospel this weekend, challenges us to keep at it. He says that we need to strive to find our way into the kingdom God is calling us to:
Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.
Unfortunately, the word He uses, strive, does not translate well into the English language. When we hear that word—strive—we think “Give it your best shot; give it the old college try.” But Jesus is saying something much stronger than that.
The Greek word we find in St. Luke is agonizomai. It is where we get the word agony. Jesus is saying to us: Agonize to enter through the narrow gate. Do everything you can, even if it hurts. For God’s sake, and for your own, get into this kingdom; get on this pilgrimage; go to heaven!
With that said, what are we willing to do to conform our lives to Jesus Christ? In the words of Blessed Pope John XXIII, are our bags packed? Are there things in our bags that we do not need, or would not want God to see?
Are there personal sins that we need to repent from, and things we need to change in our lives? Are there any bad habits, or addictions, or other obstacles that we need God’s grace and strength to overcome?
How about our relationships? Are we living at peace with God and with each other? Is there any un-forgiveness in our lives? Today we ask God for all the grace we will need to make that pilgrimage to Jerusalem. May we truly strive to meet God on that journey that begins here in this life, and continues on forever in eternal life with Him.