A Gate in Many Places
Twenty-First Sunday of the Year. Fr Dominic Ryan suggests that the image of the narrow gate is encouraging, not worrying.
It’s quite common for us to wonder about salvation. To wonder who’s going to go to heaven. Quite understandably we wonder what will happen to ourselves, but we also give thought to the total number of people who will be saved. Today’s gospel tunes into this concern and poses the question “will there only be a few saved?”
Jesus’s answer is rather stark. He advises the questioner to be ready to enter through the narrow door because not everyone who tries to do so will succeed. We can knock at the door but admission is at the master’s discretion. What the master decides is the master’s business. It behoves us not to lose sight of this.
Essentially two points are being made. First, that there is a sure path to salvation. If we can squeeze through the narrow door, then we’ll be okay. That’s surely a good thing. If there were no door at all, then we’d all be in a bit of a mess. Second however, and this is crucial, entry can be tricky. We can’t simply assume we’ll all fit through the narrow door easily. Some of us may face difficulties. Some of us may choose a different path and a different door. Some of us simply misuse the gift of our freedom, however foolish that might be.
At the same time we shouldn’t allow this to blind us to the richness of the image of the narrow gate, in particular the way in which it shows us just how much the odds are stacked in our favour. Take the reaction of Our Lord’s audience to the story. They don’t seem at all bothered by the idea that not everyone can enter through the narrow door. That’s because in Our Lord’s day it was perfectly normal for gates to be distinguished as points of entry according to social or religious standing. The idea of one gate being available in principle to all kinds of people, quite apart from their wealth and status, would have been a very surprising and exciting idea for Our Lord’s audience and quite outside their range of experience. Indeed even today it’s rather unusual.
Second and more abstractly, we tend to think of gates as tied to or limited by particular places: Gate A is at point B and leads to place C. That’s fine and fits with our experience but it’s not quite what Our Lord is getting at. To understand we have to imagine a gate that’s not tied or limited to one place. Gate A is at point B, D, E, and so on but always leads to one and the same place, C. In principle this gate is available at any place where the Lord is: here in Blackfriars Oxford, up the road at the Oratory, and anywhere else where Mass is being celebrated. Indeed the Lord is the gate, present at Mass through the mode of substance, as St Thomas put it, but leading to heaven where again the Lord is present, this time through the mode of quantity.
What difference does this make? Well a gate located in one place can only be accessed by people who come to that particular place and inevitably the number of people who do so, however large, will be limited. A gate available in many places, however, will have a much broader range of access. Many more people will be able to use it and thus a much greater number will enter in and that’s why the odds are stacked in our favour. The gate Our Lord is talking about is one through which in principle any kind of person can enter, whatever their standing, and which is present at all places where Mass is celebrated so that every person has to opportunity to try. It’s really quite unique: access for all, at least in principle.
So when we start to worry about who or how many people will be saved the thing to do is to focus on our discipleship. Do we do what Christ tells us to? If we can do that, then we’ll be on the right path and we will fit through the narrow door. In the meantime let’s be grateful just how firmly the odds are stacked in our favour.