How narrow is the way of the Cross?

On the Readings for Sunday, August 25th

• Is 66:18-21
• Ps 117:1, 2
• Heb 12:5-7, 11-13
• Lk 13:22-30

Over the past few weeks we have heard, in the readings from the Gospel according to St. Luke, about Jesus journeying up to Jerusalem to face arrest, suffering, and death (cf. Lk. 9:22, 43-45). Along the way he was spurned by a Samaritan village, he sent out seventy disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and he visited Mary and Martha. He also taught about prayer, hypocrisy, riches, and vigilance. 

As varied as these matters were, they all were addressed with a singularity of purpose, for the good shepherd was working to gather in lost sheep while demonstrating that he was the promised Messiah who would deliver the remnant of faithful from spiritual exile. His Passion would reveal the deeper meaning of his teachings, and his death and resurrection in Jerusalem would point the way to the heavenly banquet in the new Jerusalem. This is what Ad Gentes, the Vatican II decree on mission activity of the Church, called “narrow way of the cross.”

In today’s reading we hear that as Jesus made his way through “towns and villages” someone asked, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” It appears to be a fair enough question. In fact, haven’t we all, at one time or another, wondered the same thing? How many will be saved? Most? Only a few? What about my neighbor? My boss? So it is a bit bracing to read St. Cyril of Alexandria’s comment that Jesus “is purposely silent to the useless question.” Cyril pointed out that Jesus refocuses the man’s attention—and our attention as well—on the questions that should concern us. “He proceeds to speak of what was essential, namely, of the knowledge necessary for the performance of those duties by which people can enter the narrow door.”

Today’s Old Testament reading, from the conclusion of the Book of Isaiah, seems to present something of a paradox when put alongside the Gospel. Isaiah foretold of a coming time when God would widen the way of salvation to include Gentiles from “the nations.” This, in fact, had been his intention all along, as his covenant with Abram indicated: “…and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen. 12:3). Yet even more surprising was the declaration through Isaiah that some of those Gentiles would become priests. This gathering of the nations would establish a new family of God—the Church—free of ethnic criteria. These people, Jesus stated, will come from all four corners of the earth “and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”

Yet each of them will have to enter through the narrow gate, and many will fail for lack of strength. In considering this, we must recognize that the graciousness of God’s call is not incompatible with the difficulty of the journey. All that is good and worthwhile requires effort, fidelity, and sacrifice. Jesus warns, as he did many times, that being born into the family of God does not exempt anyone from striving, by God’s grace, to be a true son and daughter of God. Being baptized as a baby doesn’t allow anyone to remain a spiritual baby, but grants divine life that is meant to grow and mature. And, as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches, those who are sons will undergo discipline and experience trials, which eventually “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

Some of the Jews rejected God’s discipline via the physical Exile and so remained in spiritual exile. We, too, can turn away from God’s reproval and lose our way. Confession, prayer, and Holy Communion are essential for our spiritual health and growth. “Thus from celebration to celebration,” states, the Catechism, “as they proclaim the Paschal mystery of Jesus ‘until he comes,’ the pilgrim People of God advances, ‘following the narrow way of the cross,’ toward the heavenly banquet, when all the elect will be seated at the table of the kingdom” (CCC, par. 1344).

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 22, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.