One of the most ancient and glorious churches in the Holy Land is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The huge basilica was first built 1,700 years ago by the Emperor Constantine. Once inside you are awed by the space – the huge pillars and shimmering chandeliers. But it’s not very easy to get in. I remember one day spending an hour or so outside the church in the sun, just watching as people went in. There is only one way to get into that glorious church, and that is through a very small and narrow doorway, just four feet tall. As I watched, all sorts of people were going in: local men and women, rich tourists, poor children with no shoes. Then suddenly, with great ceremony an Orthodox bishop arrived with his entourage. As I watched, what was most unforgettable was that every single person, rich, poor, grandly episcopal, ALL had to bow down very low to get through the gate that led to glory. It was a perfect image for Jesus’s words in today’s gospel: ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ All who wanted to enter that great church, however grand they may be, had first to bow down and become small.
To enter the Kingdom of God, we have first to become small. But then secondly, Jesus says that throughout our lives there will always be two roads which we can take – the easy one which takes us through a wide gate, and the hard one which takes us through the narrow gate. But it is THIS road, although hard, which ultimately leads to life. ‘The road that leads to life’. These words really stand out for me. Jesus is holding out for us a CHOICE. You must choose! The Mexican painter Diego Rivera painted a great fresco in the Rockefeller Center, New York. It was so controversial that it was later destroyed. It was called, ‘Man at the Crossroads’. Rivera explained that “All life concentrates on man at the crossroads.” At the crossroads, we have to make a choice. All through life we are confronted with yet another crossroad and another choice. We can never stand still. Each day we have choices to make; we must take one way or another. Jesus in the gospels is so unsettling, so disturbing, so threatening, because he constantly challenged those he met to make a choice. You can keep your riches or follow me. You can’t do both. So choose. You can keep to your old way of life or live the life of the Kingdom. But you can’t do both. So choose. Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition of his forebears. He knew the words of Deuteronomy (Chapter 30: 15-20) ‘See I set before you today life or death. Choose LIFE that you may live.’
Choose life. Every single day we are called to make many choices. They are often very small and unnoticed. But slowly and unseen, over the years, these choices SHAPE our journey through life. The choices we make, however small, set us on a path which may or may not lead to life. I had a friend who used to pride himself on saying, ‘I’m keeping my options open.’ He wanted to feel the freedom of not committing himself to any particular job or relationship. Well, that may be OK when you are young, but keeping your options open does not ultimately lead to life. It can stunt your journey to adulthood, and more profoundly, as the existentialist thinkers wisely recognized, unless you choose, you cannot become an authentic human being. You cannot live two divergent lives and still be one single person. You cannot have your cake and eat it!
If you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus, as you live each day, choices must be made regarding what you carry with you ‘in your heart’. And that can be very hard. Not everything that you carry, that you hold dear, that you are attached to, will actually fit through the narrow gate. Not everything is FIT for the Kingdom of God. It has to go! We cannot serve two masters. But if we have come to believe that Jesus is the Way, and put our trust in him, the mystery we discover is that entering the narrow gate and walking the hard road will slowly no longer be difficult, but will become our greatest joy, because we will be on the road with Jesus
In the Rule of our Society there is a lovely image of what walking on the road with Jesus is like. It comes from the chapter on ‘reconciliation.’ It says, ‘We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt.’ When I read that I always have this picture of Jesus just ahead of me on the road, looking back at me and saying, ‘Come on Geoffrey.’ And of me saying, ‘Oh, I can’t keep up. I have so much stuff – my fears, my sins, my attachments, my baggage.’ And then Jesus gently saying, ‘But you don’t need to carry all that. And anyway, it won’t fit through the gate into the Kingdom; it’s too narrow.’ So why not let me REMOVE all the stuff. Let me free you up. Now you are light and free to run the race. Come on!’
You may find that image helpful in your own life. Think of all the choices you have made, which have brought you to today. Imagine Jesus looking back at you on the road and encouraging you on. And if you can’t keep up with him maybe you are too heavy. Heavy with burdens of sin, guilt, baggage; simply too much ‘stuff’- stuff that simply won’t FIT through the gate that leads to life. Let Jesus remove them, and make you light and free, and hear Jesus saying to you, ‘Come on! Follow me!’
In my life as a monk I have always been most encouraged by the words of St Benedict. At the end of his Prologue to the ‘Rule’ after having set out all the demands and challenges of following Jesus, he gives his brothers these words of encouragement: ‘Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.’
May God bless us all as day by day we follow Jesus, and may we be guided to choose the road that leads to life, that our hearts may overflow with the inexpressible delight of love.
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