The image of a grandiose, endless banquet is the most common image used in Holy Scripture to describe heaven. It is the lavish wedding feast of Christ, the Lamb of God, and his Bride, the Church. It is meant to have all nations and all peoples as wedding guests.
And 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. Luke 13:29
With hope-filled hearts we should long incessantly for admission into that heavenly banquet hall.
Yet, we need to be deeply startled by the warning which Jesus first directed at his complacent audience 2000 years ago: “And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.” Luke 13:28
Admission to that banquet hall must not be taken lightly or cavalierly presumed.
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Luke 13:24
It must be abundantly clear that, if we truly want to avoid at all costs to find the door to the Kingdom of God locked, we ought to keep in mind, always, that the initiative, the invitation, and the means to admission are all coming from God as unmerited gifts.
Hence, at this point, it is necessary that, with Jesus’ help, we identify all insidious aspects of presumption.
“We ate and drank in your company, and you taught in our streets.” Luke 13:26
That means that simply feeding at the table of God’s Word and receiving the Lord in Holy Communion is incapable of lifting us from the band of evildoers unless we do allow God’s Word to bear fruit and our hearts are set aflame with love for Jesus and for our neighbors in their needs.
In the Gospel of John (4:22), Jesus says something that appears quite odd, at first: “salvation is from the Jews.”
To be lifted from the group of evildoers, to bear fruit and to possess hearts set on fire with love is achieved through a genuine relationship with one specific Jew: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man.
And, furthermore, salvation takes place in “Jerusalem.” When someone asked Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to enter through the narrow gate of his passion and death on a cross to accomplish the Father’s grandiose plan of getting all peoples and all nations into the Kingdom.
Salvation results, then, from a most generous exchange of gifts and full cooperation between God and his people.
In Jerusalem, God pours upon all nations and all peoples his most abundant and generous Gift of grace from the pierced heart of his Crucified Son, and we join all nations and all peoples in praising and glorifying him because steadfast is his kindness toward us, and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever. Psalm 117:2
So, presumption must be constantly defeated and silenced by our humble recognition of having been called, graced, redeemed, forgiven, and sanctified without any merit on our part.
I suspect that it is hard for most of us to live with this abiding feeling of spiritual poverty and humble gratitude because, from childhood, we are taught self-reliance, entrepreneurship, initiative, and autonomy.
Yet, we cannot forget: “Without me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
The second part of the salvation equation is full cooperation with God’s grace.
God never ceases to shower his grace on us. Now and then we should stop and go over all the grace-filled opportunities we are given around the clock and, especially, on Sundays with the generous spreads of God’s Word and God’s Sacrament (the Eucharist).
Besides feeding at God’s Tables of the Word and Sacrament, we are offered homilies, catechesis, spiritual readings, lives of the saints, good examples from dedicated and loving people, sound advice, silent inspirations and so on; the list of these gifts is endless and constant.
The remaining piece of the puzzle is identification of the narrow gate.
It is found in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2: 1-ff) Aided by God’s grace and by all these gifts, we are expected to become more and more Christ-like. We are called to consider others as more important than ourselves and to place their well-being ahead of our own, just as Christ did.
It is not enough to hear God’s Word, but we must act upon it (cf. Luke 8:21).
It is not enough to feed on the Body and Blood of Christ, we must be willing to become broken bread and poured blood for each other, just like Christ.
See? The narrow gate begins to take shape little by little.
Quoting Psalm 119:32 (I will run the way of your commands, for you open my docile heart) St. Theresa of Avila calls this the expansion of our heart to love God more and more vertically, but also horizontally.
Hence, aided by the Holy Spirit, our decision to pass through the narrow gate proves that we long so intensely for the heavenly wedding banquet that we are willing to implement Jesus’ new commandment of loving each other including even the way he loved us from the cross.