31 October 2012

Among the freaks and lunatics. . .again.

NB.  I have the vigil Mass for All Saints this evening. . .homily to be posted later today. Here's a 2010 homily on the gospel for today's Mass.  

21st Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford U.

Some see it as a door. Others see it as a path. Jesus says it's a gate, a narrow gate. Flannery O'Connor's creation, that paragon of 1950's white rural middle-class Protestant respectability, Mrs. Turpin, saw it as a bridge. She stands at the fence of her hog pen, the pigs have gathered themselves around an old sow: “A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.” She watches them 'til sunset, “her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.” Finally, ready for the revelation, Mrs. Turpin raises her hands and “a visionary light settles in her eyes.” A purple-crimson dusk streaks the sky, connecting the fields with the highway: “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” Mrs. Turpin is surprised to see not only poor white trash on that bridge but black folks too. And among the “battalions of freaks and lunatics,” she sees her own tribe of scrubbed-clean, property-owning, church-going people—singing on key, orderly marching, being responsible as they always have been. We might imagine that it was a distant relative of Mrs Turpin who asked Jesus that day, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

Some say it is a door or a path. Some think of it as a key or a tabernacle. Jesus says that it is a Narrow Gate, a gate so narrow that most won't have the strength to push themselves through. There will be some on this side of the gate and some on the other side. Most of us imagine that we will be on the right side of the gate when the master of the house comes to lock the door. We will be on the inside listening to those on the outside plea for mercy, shout out their faithfulness, and cry for just one more chance. We will be on the inside when the master shouts at those on the outside, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” When we hear this brutal rebuke, do we flinch? Do we beg mercy for those left outside? Do we try to rejoin them in a show of solidarity?

These questions matter only if we have gathered the strength necessary to squeeze ourselves through the gate. If we are weak, exhausted, apathetic, or if we really are evildoers, then staying on this side of the gate, away from the table of the kingdom, probably seems more attractive, easier to accomplish, not so much sweat and tears. Do we really want to be part of a banquet that excludes so many? Do we want to lend our support to a homeowner who crafts a narrow gate for his front door, knowing that most will not be able to enter? We may be lazy or stupid or just plain evil, but we would rather suffer righteously with sinners than party self-righteously with the saints!

Mrs. Turpin's distant cousin is insistent, however: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus never answers the question. Rather than giving a straightforward yes, no, or about one-third, he moves the question away from the number of those to be saved toward the method by which they will be saved. Those who are saved are saved b/c they have used their strength to push through the Narrow Gate just before the Master locks the door. How many are saved? Don't know. Who are these people? Don't know that either. What happens to those who didn't make it through? Wailing, grinding teeth, and being cast out. Despite all their pleas, they are cast out.

Is there anything for us to do now in order to build up our strength for that final push through the Narrow Gate? Anything for us to do to fortify ourselves for that last surge, that last run at the battlement's gate? We read in the letter to the Hebrews: “. . .strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.” This is a call to righteousness, not just the sort of uprightness that comes from following the rules, but the righteousness that comes from calling on God to correct our infirmities—our drooping hands and weak knees—so that what is lame is healed and not made worse by time and trial, not left to become disjointed. Our rush through the Narrow Gate is not a test of physical strength, nor is it a marathon of virtue. The narrowness of the gate is a test of our determination, a trial against a tepid heart and irresolute mind. The narrowness of the gate challenges the sharpness of our focus on being among the blessed who will be called upon to sacrifice everything for Christ's sake, everything for the love of just one friend. It is not enough that we have been to dinner with the Lord; that we have shouted his name from a crowd; that we have witnessed his miracles, praised his preaching, memorized his teaching, or invited ourselves to recline at his table. It is not enough that we are respectable, well-educated, middle-class, religious, worthy citizens of a civilized nation. We might manage to squeeze our respectability, our diplomas, our tax forms and churches and passports through that Narrow Gate, but none of these will assist in the squeezing. Yes, we will likely end up on Mrs Turpin's bridge, heading into the clouds with all the other freaks and lunatics, but we will end up there b/c we have placed ourselves at the mercy of God to forgive us the sins that impede us, that slow us down, and all but guarantee that we do not make the gate in time.

Mrs Turpin sees her own people on that bridge. Somewhat bewildered by the strange company of white trash and black folks, her tribe of middle-class church-goers nonetheless sing on key: “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” Perhaps what will get us through that Narrow Gate is the willingness to have everything that seems so vital, so necessary, so absolutely true. . .to have all of it burned away.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this - thought-provoking, especially the final two paragraphs. Another one of those hard Gospel readings, for me, which I had to sit with for quite a while this morning.