17th Thursday in Ordinary Time
Ex 40:16-21; 34-38; Mt 13:47-53
In 1953, Edmund Hillary became the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. That same summer a group of American climbers was trying to conquer K2, the second highest peak in the world. But when one of their group – Art Gilkey, a geologist – developed blood clots, they abandoned their bid for the summit and exerted all their efforts to get him down to safety. At one point they had fanned out to scout the route ahead. One man, roped to a second, lost his balance and slid, yanking his partner and skidding him down the slope. Gaining speed, the pair clotheslined another two. This tangle of four snagged the rope connected to a fifth along with the makeshift gurney containing Gilkey. All six men flailed down the mountain, about to launch off a 7,000-foot drop. “This is it!” thought Bob Bates, one of the climbers. “There was nothing I could do now.”
Above them was Pete Schoening, a twenty-six-year-old from Seattle. He leaped up and grabbed a rope attached to Gilkey, who – through a series of towlines, tangles, and tie-offs – was also connected to the five tumbling climbers. Schoening wound the line around his shoulders and anchored the wooden shaft of his axe behind a rock. The line yanked Schoening, but he held the axe and simultaneously clenched the rope. Somehow, it didn’t snap, and Schoening checked the momentum of six falling men. Mountaineers call this feat the Miracle Belay.
This gripping image on K2 can sometimes encapsulate how we feel about loved ones and other acquaintances. Either through poor choices or just bad luck, they seem to be careening down a slippery slope to a deadly precipice. We may feel helpless to save them but our prayers are the rope that connects us to them. I find it interesting that Pete Schoening’s axe was in the form of a cross. That’s what we need to cling to in our helplessness. It was through the wood of the Cross that Jesus ransomed souls from eternal damnation. He created the opportunity for salvation, but he won’t force it on us, he won’t compromise our free will. Through our prayers and love and sacrifices, we can be the link that connects people to the saving work of the Cross. We might not see the results immediately. They might continue to free-fall until the slack of the rope is taken up. But eventually, maybe even on their deathbed or after they’ve lost consciousness, our loving prayers will bear fruit.
One may object that it is hard to go to hell, or that if hell exists, it’s empty. But that’s not the message we get from the Gospels. In the parable that we just listened to, the angels were depicted as separating the good fish from the bad. At the end of the age, the wicked will be thrown “into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
Similarly, we had the parable of the weeds and the wheat two days ago. Jesus explained to his disciples, “Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of the Kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 13:36-43).
Elsewhere in Matthew, we read of Jesus instructing his followers: “Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to destruction is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (7:13-14).
And one final point. We shouldn’t get puffed up with spiritual pride, thinking we’re on secure footing and heroes saving the world. There were probably plenty of times when it was we ourselves who were on the slippery slope and it was the prayers of others that threw us a life-line. And the climb isn’t over yet. Hopefully, like that valiant group of American climbers in 1953, we will subordinate our own selfish ambitions to the safety and good of the team.