Saturday, October 11, 2014

RSVP'ing for the Heavenly Banquet

Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, "The Adoration of the Lamb," c. 1432.

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people
in parables, saying,
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants
to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.
A second time he sent other servants, saying,
‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, 'The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, 'My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?'
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen."

- Mt 22:1-14

Recently, I’ve been engaged in witnessing a lot of marriages – that is, I’ve been doing a lot of weddings. For us priests, weddings are a part of our ministry that is at once both a challenge and a joy. They’re a challenge because in advance of the wedding, the Church asks that we spend significant time with the couple in forming them to understand what they’re undertaking, to make sure they know the rights and obligations that go along with marriage and ensure they are truly ready to accept them. That’s a fairly weighty responsibility to have. But weddings are also a joy because we priests are privileged to be there to witness the exact same thing – a couple who, through love and hard work, grow together and come before the altar of God to accept their vocation and to consecrate themselves to each other for life.

My favorite part of a wedding is the reception. That’s partly some of the pressures of the wedding ceremony itself are finished, and I can breathe a little easier. But it’s also because I really enjoy being there to witness the first few moments of the couple’s life together. I’ve found that there are few things as beautiful and happy as a wedding reception. The guests are ready to celebrate, the family and friends of the couple are jubilant, and the husband and wife are overjoyed – and very often, overwhelmed – at the blessing they have just received.

In the Gospel today, Jesus uses just such an occasion to give us an image of the great joy that has been prepared for us in the kingdom of God. The wedding feast which Jesus describes for us is the heavenly banquet, the feast which awaits us at the end of time in celebration of the union between heaven and earth that he, the Son of God, achieves. You know, so often as Christians – and often, I find, in the homilies of us priests – we talk about having to struggle through life’s dark moments, of bearing difficult circumstances well, of sacrificing and enduring hardship by means of our faith. Those things are important, but they’re also temporary. You and I have been invited to a greater reality, a joy that far surpasses any joy that this world knows, that far exceeds anything we could imagine. Too often, we lose sight of the fact that we’re asked to bear in faith the burdens of life now precisely in such a way that we can journey closer to the ultimate, eternal wedding feast.

Perhaps now we can understand a little better the parable for today that Jesus gives us. He describes for us a wedding feast, to which all of the king’s honored guests have been invited in celebration of his son’s wedding. And yet, as we hear, the people of the kingdom don’t heed the invitation. They fail to accept it, they ignore it, they reject it – why? Perhaps because they are too wrapped up in their own circumstances; perhaps they’re too weighed down by life’s burdens; perhaps they’re just too busy with the concerns of the present moment. Whatever the reason, when the invitation comes, they don’t respond; they fail to recognize and appreciate the amazing joy to which they have been invited. They’ve forgotten that life – at its foundation – is about joy.

I think at this point it’s important to ask ourselves a very serious question – do I feel joy in my life? If we took some time to think, we might say that we often feel contentment – satisfaction – perhaps gladness – perhaps happiness. The answer of course for each of us would vary according to our own demeanor, our own circumstances, our own ability to be in tune with the inner workings of our heart. But, if we are really honest with ourselves, I think we would say that true, real, lasting joy is probably something that most of us experience in this life only occasionally, only in passing. So often what we think will make us happy turns out to disappoint; so often what we take pleasure in at the moment fades with time.

And that is exactly the way God wants it to be; it’s the way he has created us to be. He’s created us ultimately for himself, and so if our hearts are only to find their full and lasting joy in encountering the one who has created and redeemed us, then necessarily every thing we might take for joy in this life will fall short. And if we bear that in mind, if we remember how what we sacrifice now in faith is bringing us closer to heaven, then we can endure it, we can get by. The problem comes in when we fail to remember that we’re being invited to that final, full, ultimate joy. When we look for things here, in this reality – even good things – to satisfy us, then we risk missing the opportunity to accept the invitation to the heavenly banquet.

At times, all of us need reminders, and that’s why what we’re doing here right now is so important. The obligation to attend Mass every week is something that perhaps we don’t too much about, but it’s ultimately helping us on our journey to heaven. Gathering together as the family of God, listening to his word, asking for his forgiveness – these are things that remind us of our final calling. I know sometimes we feel like the words we say, and the actions we do are repetitive – and perhaps we get disappointed when the homily, or who is giving the homily, isn’t what we want. But every Mass is important not so much for who is present there in the pews – or who is here behind the ambo – but for who becomes present there on the altar, who we receive on our hands or our tongues, who enters into us. The Eucharist is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. It’s the Eucharist that is the tangible presence of the One who reminds us himself what he’s inviting us to.

This week, I came across a quote about the Eucharist that stopped me in my tracks. It’s from St. Josemaria Escrivá, a Spanish priest from the last century who emphasized finding the hand of God in our daily life, and I’d like to share it with you. He said, “Have you ever thought how you would prepare yourself to receive the Lord if you could go to Holy Communion only once in your life?” …. I for one had not thought about it, but I began to. Perhaps some of you are thinking about it now. I hope that most of us would want to do something different – do something more than how we often find ourselves prepared for communion. If we could receive Jesus only one time in Holy Communion, I hope that most of us could say that we would pay extra attention to how we had prepared ourselves, both outside – our clothes, our hands, our mindset before and after communion – and especially inside – the state of our hearts, our relationship with God, the condition of our soul.

My friends, I enjoy weddings for all the reasons I mentioned above – and for one other reason as well: because every wedding reminds me that all of us are being invited to a final, heavenly wedding banquet in the house of the Lord. Are we aware of that eternal joy to which we are called? Are we excitedly seeking to accept the invitation to it by the way we live, or do we settle for the passing pleasures of this world? Every Sunday we are called to come to this church to renew our faith in God and to receive the Lord himself in the Eucharist. Is it just another moment in our week, or do we look beyond with the eyes of faith to see, to taste, a preview of heaven? The Lord has prepared a banquet for us – are we prepared for him?