28th Sunday of the Year
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son…” Matt 22:2
There has been nothing perhaps more universal in traditional human societies than the celebration of a marriage banquet with a feast, entertainment and the close company of relatives and friends. Wedding banquets are still enjoyed by virtually everyone in cultures that have retained at least some contact with their religious origins.
How interesting it is then that Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven by using a parable about a great wedding banquet given by a king for his son. That nuptial setting of the parable teaches us what Heaven essentially is. It is essentially a great unending and joyous feast, the greatest of all wedding feasts, one provided by God for His Son and for us who are His guests. Successful and happy wedding banquets in this world are always most joyful and exhilarating; they provide great food, great company, music, and communal conversation. What, then, must this eternal, heavenly wedding feast be like since it is the eternal joy and happiness of the Angels and Saints?
Obviously, it can’t be less joyful or less exhilarating, or less happy than the greatest earthly wedding feast. It has to provide joy, happiness, and exhilaration raised to the nth degree, an exhilarating experience of “life” that we can only begin to imagine here on earth, as St. Paul teaches us in I. Cor. 2:9, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Just imagine, it’s all this, and it’s unending as well, never flagging, never less joyful or less happy, and forever!
Going further into the mystery, we might ask who are the main players in the parable of wedding banquet? First, there is the father, and then the son of course, for whom the banquet is given and then there are the invited guests. So, how does this list apply to the Heavenly feast of beatitude? Well, quite obviously the one who provides the eternal banquet is God the Father and He provides it for His Eternal Son who has become flesh, a true man forever. Heaven is a real wedding feast, not just a metaphorical one, because Jesus is eternally a real bridegroom, a real man. But here we also might notice the curious absence of any mention of another essential and very important person at every wedding feast, the bride. This silence invites our curiosity, just who is the bride at this heavenly feast?
Perhaps one answer, that seems somewhat supported in the Scriptures and the writings of some Church fathers and doctors, might well be that the bride is Mary, since she is the Queen of the Kingdom over which Christ is the King. This Kingdom and this feast is a spiritual reality essentially, and surely Mary is the only person spiritually perfect to be the Bride of Christ. There is a great mystery here, for Mary is always seen as the individual saint who in her person reflects the whole spiritual reality of the Church corporately. So, in Mary, we can also identify the whole Church as the bride as well.
This unique relation of Mary to the whole Church, then, means that the guests who remain at the feast because they are present in their wedding garments, the grace of Baptism, can also be seen to be mystically identified with the bride of the Heavenly Kingdom. That is, all the saints and angels are at once, on one level, the wedding guests and, on another level, the Bride of Christ. The parable also teaches that in Heaven, the Church will be the invited guests and mystically the Bride of Christ, but the glorified Church will consist only of the saints who have proven faithful to their baptismal promises to the Bridegroom here on earth. All mankind has been invited the feast, but many will either reject the invitation outright or reject it by their failure to come to the banquet in their baptismal/wedding garment of grace.
Now the parable is a most fitting one to describe the Kingdom of Heaven as a great wedding feast because human marriage was, from the very beginning, intended by God to be a natural sign of the eternal and “nuptial” union between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ and ultimately a sacramental sign of the nuptial union between Christ and His Church.
That is precisely why Jesus elevated the institution of natural marriage into a Christian form of marriage, which itself becomes a true sacrament of grace. For the fact is that all grace comes to this world from this intimate union between Christ and His Church. Moreover, Genesis says that by virtue of marriage man and woman become “one flesh.” And that great mystery reaches unheard of depths when Jesus becomes one flesh with the Church, that is, when the Church becomes His Bride through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The guest becomes the bride and the union is made eternal.
Going a bit further, the mystery of the union between Christ and His Church – the mystery of their becoming their one flesh – can be seen suggested once again in the food of the banquet. In the first reading today, Isaiah speaks of the messianic banquet as “A feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” [25:6] In addition, Isaiah prophecies that this great messianic banquet will not be limited to Israel, for Isaiah adds that On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide [this feast] for all peoples. And finally, what must this eternal rich food and choice wine actually be that will be given on the mountain? For that answer we turn again to St. Paul who teaches us that this food and wine are something spiritual. For Paul says in his Letter to the Romans (14:17) “For the Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Thus the rich food in Isaiah is actually the Triune God.
And that astounding truth most interestingly brings us back to earth. For we know that there is already a sacrificial banquet of the Church that is deeply spiritual in nature, providing the rich food of Christ’s body and the choicest wine of Christ’s blood. Thus, the Eucharist we celebrate here has to be understood correctly as the beginning of the eternal wedding feast of Heaven, and consequently we know that the heavenly, eternal wedding feast that we have been looking at actually begins already here on earth and then reaches its fullness only in Heaven. There it will be unending, eternal, endless joy and happiness; no going back into the world. Here it is only just beginning, a foretaste, and a promise of what is to come, so long as we remain part of the feast here on earth.
The Church, then, in her Eucharistic banquet is not only the Bride of Christ but the new Zion, the new mountain of God from which and through which God is in fact already fulfilling this promise to prepare a feast for His Son and to bring guests from all the nations to that feast of salvation, and make them mysteriously His Bride. Thus, the Eucharist is but the beginning of the great heavenly banquet, offering to God joyful adoration and offering to man the richest food and wine, which is the sacred body and blood of Jesus the Bridegroom.
Once you truly believe in this magnificent work of God and begin to live this truth at the banquet of the Eucharist, you begin to understand why for Paul, in today’s second reading, nothing is really necessary for his own happiness except Christ. Sure we need food and clothing because we are not spirits without bodies, but even these things are nothing in comparison to the blessing we have already received in Christ, nothing compared to our faith which enables us to receive Christ in our hearts, and in our very bodies through the Eucharist.
But returning once more to the parable, the only thing that we need fear is that we might grow bored by the banquet of the Eucharist, lose our interest in the Bread of Life and end up rejecting the invitation of the Father to that heavenly feast because our business or our leisure or our rest seems more important to us than the wedding feast. How many Catholics have done just that today, abandoned the Eucharist, and end up abandoning the Church which is the Bride of Christ?
Thus the great parable is a warning that we must not grow careless and allow ourselves to grow cold, to become lax and find ourselves unprepared to enjoy the heavenly banquet due to our care-less attitude toward participation in the Eucharistic banquet here on earth. We can recall here Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins, where the five lazy and careless servants are late for the banquet and find themselves locked out. Whenever I hear that particular parable, I always think of how it might apply partially to people who are frequently careless about getting to Church on time. What does it say about the measure of their love for the Bridegroom when they show up late or leave early week after week? Perhaps this behavior reveals that their motive is not so much love but just a sense of duty, like attending a funeral or wedding of someone we don’t particularly care about, only because we feel a duty to attend. Is this the way we will show up at that final Heavenly banquet? Does not such a care-less attitude eventually destroy one’s love for the Bridegroom and the Bride?
Nor must be become presumptuous like the man at the end of the parable who shows up but is not dressed for the banquet. Some Fathers interpreted this wedding garment – correctly I think – as the Baptismal grace which is symbolized by the white garment placed over the newly Baptized. One cannot enter the heavenly banquet without this Baptismal garment of grace, and it is presumptuous to think we can. It is indeed an insult to the King and to the Groom and His Bride as well.
Think about it. There is no greater privilege that we receive in this life than our calling to participate in the Holy Eucharist, and not simply to participate as a guest but as part of His corporate Bride, part of the Church. Should we not be responding, then, with great love and purity of heart, and not simply out of a sense of duty? Love is the real internal dynamic of the wedding feast of Jesus. Surely, then, nothing is more important for our salvation than the Eucharistic Banquet we celebrate corporately, as a body, each week. This corporate act of worship is truly the great feast of sacrificial love and a feast of great interior joy, at least for those who truly love and believe in the One Who invites us and Who makes us His Church and bride in one body.