I don’t think anyone here today would deny that the culture we live in borders on the obsessive when it comes to being physically fit. Diets, low calorie foods and drinks, exercise equipment, gym memberships, martial arts, personal trainers, liposuction, ginsing and vitamin E have made their way into the lifestyles of all of us in one way or another; be it our simple but conscious choice to drink Diet Pepsi or our resolve to do more walking or eat less fat.
Our cultural idols are often sports figures or entertainers with rippling muscles and buff bodies. These people discipline themselves and perform various exercises to make themselves strong.
I think any one of them would be able to identify with what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in today’s second reading is trying to tell us. Physical training is hard, difficult and exhausting. The more demanding it is, the more likely that the athlete will learn to deal with the pressures of competition.
And a coach who allows his athletes to do whatever and whenever they feel like doing it is no coach at all. A coach who is unwilling or unable to push his or her athletes to the limit during training will never help them to realize their full potential. But the difference between God and a coach or a personal trainer is that God is a partner in our struggles. He pulls right along with us.
What we seem to forget during the course of our lives is that we’re not just physical beings. We’re spiritual beings as well. Angels are pure spirit, they have no bodies. But we are body and spirit though we often forget that our spiritual nature needs nourishment and exercise just as our physical nature does. Now I don’t know if you think that this sounds like a lot of baloney or not, but look at what Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
When asked about who will be saved, or in other words, who will be admitted into the eternal kingdom, he responds: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
What’s that mean - “they will not be strong enough”? Does that mean that only us 6 foot 5 inch physical specimens (that’s a joke) will be able to fight our way through the narrow gate, pushing everyone else aside?
“Many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
I think Jesus is talking here about our spiritual strength. And how do we become spiritually strong? How do we become strong enough to enter through that narrow gate? Well, how do we become physically strong? Through nourishment and exercise. Right?
Well I think that most of us here have the nourishment part down pretty good. Everyone here has come to be nourished at the table of the Lord. Nourished with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Isn’t a good part of any exercise program to drink plenty of water? Didn’t Jesus tell us that he is the living water come down from heaven? Of course unlike any physical diet where we usually cut back on what we eat, we’re encouraged to participate MORE often in the celebration of the Eucharist. Many people try to get to daily Mass whenever they can and they definitely get to Mass during any holy days of obligation when extra Masses are planned to accommodate everyone’s busy schedule.
But like I said, all of us here today receive the “minimum weekly requirement” of spiritual nourishment that will help us become strong, or at least maintain the strength we have. You know, if we had to put a wrapper around each host that had the nutritional information printed on it just like they do with the foods at the supermarket, that’s probably what it would say, “This host contains the minimum weekly requirement of spiritual nutrition needed by any human being for access to the kingdom.” The minimum weekly requirement.
But that’s only the half of it. Any doctor will tell you that in order to become strong, a good exercise program is needed along with good nutrition.
So what are our spiritual exercises we could be doing in order for us to have access to the narrow gate?
First and foremost is prayer. Do we set aside time for prayer in the morning or evening - or both? Many people find a rosary to be just the right length to fit into their busy schedule. Hey, doing fifty reps of Hail Mary’s seems a lot easier than doing 50 reps with a 30 pound barbell doesn’t it?
How about the All-Night Eucharistic Adoration - can you spend one hour with our Lord?
Do we use the Sacrament of Reconcilliation regularly? Once a month? Every 6 weeks? Reconcilliation is probably like a combination aerobic ab-cruncher that will really help us to get rid of our spiritual fat so we can fit through that narrow gate. Like the Eucharist, it’s a sacrament, instituted by Christ himself. Combined with the Eucharist it’s like the one-two punch of spiritual nourishment and spiritual exercise.
And there are still other things we can do. I’m always impressed with the number of people - young and old, male and female- who turn out for the Stations of the Cross here during Lent. But there’s always room for more people. It’s a great spiritual exercise.
Or how about a weekend retreat? You could think of it as a health spa for the soul. And it’s so much cheaper.
Or a scripture study class. Or a theology of movies get-together.
There are probably more spiritual exercises out there that really will make us stronger than there are videos or gimmicks that promise to give us buns of steel.
What I’m suggesting here is that since we are spiritual as well as physical beings, we need to balance our lives so that we pay at least as much attention to becoming spiritually strong as we do in being physically strong.
And as we become more spiritually strong, that will enable us to better endure the trials that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews spoke of. He tells us to “endure our trials as discipline.” We all have crosses to bear, that’s just a part of life this fallen earth. Crosses of illness or bad relationships or addictions or whatever your cross happens to be.
But according to today’s second reading, that’s where we really become strong, lifting and carrying those crosses every day even though sometimes we feel like those Olympic weightlifters struggling to get those weights up over our heads. But like them, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to lose heart, to keep our eye on the prize. That when we struggle successfully with the discipline of the trials of this life we’ll be rewarded with “the peaceful fruit of righteousness”, the peacefulness that comes of being “right” with God.
Then of course, if we REALLY want to make sure that we’re strong enough to enter that narrow gate to the kingdom that Jesus talked about, then we need to lift more weight, and the only way to do that is to help someone else with their cross.
In all these ways we can enhance the spiritual nourishment we receive here at the altar every week in the Eucharist. Pray. Attend scripture study classes or other reflection groups. We have men’s and women’s retreats coming up in October. We’re going to be having evenings of prayer and reflection here at our parish in October and during Lent. The St. Vincent DePaul Society is looking for people to help collect the food from the back of church every week and distribute it to those in need. Let’s not let our spiritual muscles weaken and atrophy. Let’s strengthen ourselves and strengthen each other.