Over the past few days the province of Alberta has been blanketed in a thick haze of smoke from forest fires raging in British Columbia. Here in Edmonton we have noticed a significant reduction in visibility because of it. At its worst concentration, the haze prevented us from seeing even across our river valley from one side to another. Beautiful views of the valley were obscured from sight. Now that the smoke is beginning to dissipate the beauty is coming once again into focus.
The Scripture readings of yesterday place before our eyes a beautiful vista: God’s desire to save the whole world. This is expressed in the first reading from Isaiah, who foresees a great gathering of people from all over the world in Jerusalem, the site of God’s dwelling (cf. Isaiah 66:18-21). This is a vision of salvation, which involves all people, drawn together by God into the folds of his loving embrace. This vision is given confirmation in the teaching of Jesus, the Son of God and Saviour, who speaks in terms of a festive banquet to which people from the east, west, north and south will come to sit at the table of the Lord (cf. Luke 13:22-30). God’s love is for all; His will to save is universal in its intention.
The “smoke” that obscures this vision from sight comes from the “fire” we call works-righteousness. By this term is meant the understanding that we can somehow earn salvation by the simple observance of the commandments of God and the doing of good works. In the Gospels Jesus is constantly pointing out the fallacy of this thinking, to the scribes and Pharisees in particular. Salvation is the work of God, it is pure gift. In no way can it be earned. This theme is taken up often by St. Paul in his letters. This “fire,” by placing the emphasis upon ourselves, results in a “smoke” that obscures from view the desire of God to touch, to heal and to save all people. Furthermore, analogous to the smoke of the wildfires, that of self-righteousness can be toxic. It can give rise to pride in one’s “goodness” and to a self-righteous judgment of others.
This is not to say that there is to be no cooperation on our part with the saving work of God in our lives. Jesus speaks of the necessity of entering through a “narrow door” into his kingdom. How might we understand this? Again, the example of the wildfires and their smoke can help us.
Fires need fuel. The wildfires of B.C. are feeding upon the forests. What fuels the fire of self-righteousness? This can be any number of things. The human heart contains much that can make us feel we need to earn the notice, love and respect of others: loneliness; life’s hurts and rejections, the imposition of expectations impossible to fulfill; and so on. If we experience this need to earn love in human relationships, it is but a small step to project this into our relationship with God. But God’s love simply cannot be earned. It doesn’t need to be. It is freely poured out upon each and every person he has created. In Jesus His Son, he has made that love both visible and tangible. By touching us with divine love, Jesus heals the hurts within us that fuel the “fire” and enables us to taste, even now, the joy of salvation, the delight of being found by God and restored to life. But this means allowing Jesus to draw close, to humbly and trustingly hold out to him the pains of our lives, so that “what is lame may ... be healed” (Hebrews 12:13). As Jesus says in the Gospel, a superficial relationship with him, as if with a mere acquaintance, is not enough. He wants us to know him and to know ourselves as truly known by him. Bringing our pains to the Lord for healing may be difficult at first, like passing through a very narrow door, but it is necessary if we are truly to encounter him as our saving Lord. The Holy Spirit helps us here. Unlike the winds that fan the flames of the forest fires, the gentle breeze of the Spirit is cool refreshment. He reminds us of the truth of God’s love and gently leads us to a healing encounter with Christ.
Communion with Christ starves works-righteousness of its fuel. In it we experience the truth that we are loved by God simply for who we are, not for who we try to be. This sets us free for service so that, when the smoke disappears and the wondrous vista of God’s universal love comes into clear sight, we will give of ourselves to share that love with others.