Thursday, 13 October 2011

Wedding garments

From my sermon at the student mass last Sunday.

The wedding garment

Banquets and feasting are very much the theme in the first reading and the gospel today. The feast in Isaiah is in the context of a whole chapter giving thanks to God who has done away with the oppressor. Apparently the oppressor had a citadel in the midst of Jerusalem and this citadel had been completely destroyed. It was time to rejoice and be thankful.

Yet this victory, welcome though it undoubtedly was, was only one stage – the great hope is the “feast for all peoples”. After Judgement God will destroy death – the covering over all peoples, the veil spread over the nations will be destroyed; God will swallow death forever.

As we turn to the parable of the wedding banquet in the gospel today, we notice that the parable has two parts. We can clearly understand the meaning of the first part because it parallels the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard we heard last Sunday. The king's invited guests are not responding despite the sending out of servants to call them to the banquet (the servants being the prophets). The guests deal wickedly with the servants and murder them and then the king despatches his troops and deals with them by killing them and burning down the town. Then servants call everyone from highways and byways, good and bad alike, to come to the banquet. This refers to the call of the gentiles into the kingdom of God.

All well and good. But the second part of the parable takes a different turn. The new guests are arriving and entering into the king's banqueting hall. The king is looking over the guests. And he picks out someone who is not dressed appropriately, and they are thrown out into the outer darkness.

If you are wondering about this and what it could mean, you are not alone. Over the centuries many have wondered at its meaning. As with all the parables we are not to take it literally – it is not referring to impropriety in dressing wrongly for mass, or an other occasion. So what is it? What has this man done to deserve this treatment?

The first thing to recognise is that it is not to do with any misfortune that the man has experienced – he isn't victimised because he is poor, for example. I read in the commentaries that wedding garments would have been provided for the poor. So in the story this man had chosen not to dress like everyone else. What therefore does this mean?

Both St Gregory the Great and St Augustine agree what this wedding garment signifies, and I gladly take their suggestion above all the various other suggestions I have heard preachers give.

St Augustine and St Gregory say that the wedding garment is the Christian virtue of love (what used to be called charity). St Augustine refers us to St Paul's words in his first letter to the Corinthians:

If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love(charity), I am nothing.

The man had nothing to answer, the robe had been offered to him and he had decided not to wear it. We too are offered the grace it is up to us whether we avail ourselves of it.

When St Augustine, St Gregory or indeed St Paul used the word “love” they were not talking about the natural affection or emotion of love that we usually mean in common speech today. [This is one of the most confusing/misleading aspects of the modern world – the corruption or prostitution of so many wonderful words.] And it is imperative that we as Christians know what we mean by love.

So the wedding garment in the parable is not about how disposed we are to feel love towards people or indeed God. God does not command us to be luvvie-dovies!

The natural instinct and sentiment of love drives us towards having or possessing what we desire. Whereas the Christian virtue of love is almost the opposite. It is not a drive, but the operation of grace leading to self-offering to God. It is not about possessing something but giving self. It is not about getting more for myself, but sacrifice. This Christian virtue of love is not dependant on emotions but involves a free act of will. God provides the grace, we must freely choose to receive it.

So the man in the parable is the one who while being offered the grace of divine love, refuses it; but in refusing it, as St Paul says, becomes nothing (that is true outer darkness).

The commandment to love God is at the very heart of Christianity and Judaism. Our Lord endorses the core Jewish precept, “hear O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” (Dt 6:4-5)

We get further confused by the use of heart here. We tend to use heart nowadays as the seat of our emotional life, but for the ancient Jew, he thought with his heart – he felt emotions with his bowels. And as we see bowels are not mentioned in the above list. God is not commanding us to feel love  – we might or we might not, it does not matter so much.

The Christian virtue of love is a patient and humble love. It does not try to possess or control. It is not full of itself but self-emptying. The Christian virtue of love is the drawing of all the energies and virtues of the soul towards God – unifying the whole soul and directing it towards God. This is of course perfect love but every Christian should desire this and strive after such love.

It is by growing in divine love that we draw closer to eternal blessedness – the true banquet of heaven. As we grow in such love we grow in the true knowledge of God, and the soul is energised for good. As we mature in such love, results matter less, just the knowledge of doing the will of God is all that matters.

But How? How do we avail ourselves of such love? There is only one source of such love: God Himself. And no technique or method will avail ourselves of His grace. We must spend time offering ourselves to Him in prayer and allow Him the room to send His grace into our hearts. The great challenge for us today, in the busyness of modern living, is to make sure we give God enough time, that we avail ourselves of the wedding garment He has provided for us. Lest when we come to the wedding banquet of heaven, we find we have not put on the garment of divine love, and we are nothing!

IH 8 Oct 2011

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DAY NINE (Eve of Pentecost)