Sunday, August 21, 2016

Celebrate or Die

Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14). But, for a wedding story, his parable has a lot of murder and violence. Some of the guests invited to the wedding feast simply make light of it and – excusing themselves by this or that trifle – do not come. Others, however, seize and kill the servants whom the king sent bearing the glad news and invitation. In response, the king sends in his troops and kills not only those insensate murderers, but also their entire city.

Having no guests left and finding his first-invited guests unworthy, the king invites a multitude in from the streets. This is where we come in, I expect. But the violence does not end here – for both the good and the bad now sit together at the feast – and the king makes sure the bad do not go unpunished.

He sees among the guests a man who has no wedding garment and asks him how he got in so inappropriately dressed. If the man were guiltless, surely he would defend himself – protesting that he was invited by the king’s servants or that he was too poor to afford such finery. But the man says nothing. It would seem, then, that he has no excuse. So the king has him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is the meaning of all this violence? What kind of party is this? What party comes with such stakes? This is rather like getting a wedding invitation – but in fine print at the bottom is written, “Celebrate or die.” It becomes rather clear that we are not talking here about the usual kind of wedding party. We might not want to be invited to a wedding like this – it sounds rather dangerous – but, like it or not, we are invited.

It is a free invitation to celebrate, but it’s an invitation we’d better accept. It’s an invitation with teeth. It is an occasion of great joy, but it is deadly serious. Those unwilling to partake joyfully will have hell to pay. Because this wedding feast, as Jesus says at the outset, is like the kingdom of heaven. The wedding clothes we are to wear to this feast are those we put on at baptism. That is, they are like Christ himself, for, at baptism, we are clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27). To be thrown out of this wedding hall is to be thrown out the gates of heaven.  

But this party isn’t just exactly like heaven either. For one thing, it’s a party to which both the good and the bad have come. I’ve been to a few parties like that.

In fact, every Divine Liturgy is a party like that, if you think about it. Our Eucharistic celebration is like a party to which both the good and the bad alike are invited. The sinners and the saints sit together in the pews. For that matter, they’re usually sitting together in the same seat. If you’re wondering whether you’re a sinner or a saint, remember that you can be both. This struggle between the good and the bad happens mostly on the inside.

Jesus’ parable reminds me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters, which I highly recommend. It’s framed as a series of letters from a senior demon – Screwtape – to a junior demon – his nephew Wormwood – with advice on the best way to tempt a soul to keep him out of heaven and secure his place in hell. The demons sardonically call their victims “patients.”

Well, Wormwood gets in trouble one day when his “patient” converts to Christianity. Screwtape is mightily displeased. But, he assures his nephew, their hope of damning the poor soul to hell is not lost. “One of our great allies at present,” says Screwtape, “is the Church itself.”

You see, Screwtape is well aware of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel: both good and bad guests fill the wedding hall – and the devils can use the bad ones to help corrupt the good. The Church in this world is a mixed bag.

Screwtape points out that the new Christian will get to his pew, look around him and see just those neighbors “whom he has hitherto avoided.” You’ll want to “lean pretty heavily on those neighbors,” he advises Wormwood “It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains,” writes Screwtape. “Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.… Never let him ask what he expected them to look like….”

It may be, of course, that “the people in the next pew” are actually good and holy people. Of course if they’re not, writes Screwtape “– if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge player or the man with squeaky boots is a miser and an extortioner – then your task is so much the easier.”

You see, the demons will use our sins not only to drag us down but also to drag others down with us, if they can. Our neighbors see our sins and our hypocrisy and it sometimes convinces them that the church itself is hypocritical and ridiculous. Of course, I’m reminded of that old retort to the common complaint that there are too many hypocrites in church: “Don’t worry, there’s always room for one more.”

So, do not judge others. Look to your own sins.

That’s the point. All are invited and welcome to the feast, regardless of their sinfulness. But those who accept the invitation have a serious duty. This love feast is not a free-for-all, come-one, come-all, do-as-you-please, orgiastic bacchanalia. This is a wedding feast – a celebration of commitment, fidelity, fruitfulness, life, and love. A wedding is where two become one, and at this wedding, we the Church become one with Christ our Lord. Those unprepared to celebrate these things – those without a wedding garment – cannot remain in the kingdom of heaven. We are now before the gates of the kingdom of heaven and our king is inviting us in. His invitation is this: Repent, and know the joy only Christ can bring.

Holy Gate (Royal Doors), 16th century, 
Arkhangelsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts

2 comments:

Andrew Sorokowski said...

This is a most edifying meditation. Thank you!

Ed MacD said...

I have been informed more than once that at such a wedding feast the host PROVIDED the wedding garment. The implication, then, is that the guest refused it. This would translate into a refusal of grace, would it not, which makes perfect sense of the whole thing.

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