If God promised us a banquet then why does it seem we so often experience famine? In light of today’s readings, we can discern two reasons for this. First, based on our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, it is rooted in the fact that this life is incomplete. The second reason arises from the refusal to accept, or perhaps even realize, this fact and so refuse what God so graciously gives us, which is nothing less than himself, nothing less than hope.
Writing to the Church in Philippi, St. Paul, who at that time was a prisoner, either in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea, told them he had “learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry” (Phil 4:12). Judging by this passage, the secret of living a life not tied to material wealth or ease of circumstances, is trusting God completely to supply “whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).
In this passage, Paul described what can only be verified in reality through experience, something that can’t be systematized, something to which many saints bore witness: in Christ, you can experience a famine as a feast. Traditionally, fasting, one of the core spiritual disciplines taught to us by the Lord himself, a discipline that has practically vanished among Christians in wealthy countries, was practiced to help Christians experience this for themselves.
Our reading from Philippians chapter four skips from verse 14 to verse 19. In verses 15-18 the Apostle lauded the Church in Philippi for coming to his aid during his imprisonment. While he thanked them for their help, he was primarily grateful for how their charity toward him accrued to their account and not to his. Remember, he was fine going without. Because he was the one who brought them the Gospel, he referred to their charity towards him and towards each other his as “full payment” (Phil 4:18). The aid they sent to Paul was brought to him by a man named Epaphroditus. In receiving what Epaphroditus brought, he received “a ‘fragrant aroma,’ an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).
I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb to state that what Paul found so pleasing about the aid the Church in Philippi sent him was that they sent it at great sacrifice to themselves. He was moved by their willingness to go without in order to help someone in need. Whenever we do this, it is a fragrant aroma, a sacrifice acceptable to God.
Turning to our Gospel, it is important whenever Jesus begins a parable with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like,” or, as in our reading today, “The kingdom of God may be likened to,” we need to pay close attention. We also need to attend to the context.
As with last week’s Gospel, the Parable of the Vineyard, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet is addressed to the elders and chief priests. We must also keep in mind that Matthew’s Gospel was written in and for a largely, but likely not exclusively, Jewish Christian community, what can rightly be referred to as a Christian synagogue.
Like the Parable of the Vineyard, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet is an allegory. God the Father is the King. His son for whom the wedding feast is thrown is Jesus. His servants, once again, are the prophets.
The invited guests are the Israelites, God’s chosen people. The Church, which is comprised of people from everywhere, Jews and Gentiles alike, are those whom the servants are sent forth to round up when the invited guests were too busy to come to the banquet and so were vanquished by the king.
By no means is it pushing things too far to extend this parable from Israel to the Church, which St. Paul conceived of as the new and true Israel. The banquet is nothing other than the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Who is the bride? Christ’s Bride is the Church. Without a bride there can be no wedding. In the end, the Church, Christ’s Bride, to mix metaphors, is comprised not of those who were invited to the banquet, but those who come.
Every week Christ issues you an invitation to the banquet of the Eucharist. Our participation in Mass, at least to some extent, is a participation in the feast to come, but, living as we do between the already and the not-yet, it is not a full participation, but an anticipation.
What about the guy not wearing a wedding garment? Pope St. Gregory the Great, in a sermon on this passage, likened the wedding garment to the white garment we received when we were baptized. We are presented the garment with the exhortation to bring it unstained into the kingdom of heaven. Given our propensity to sin, how do we do keep our white garment unstained? The truth of the matter is, we can’t do it on our own. We need God’s help. The help God gives us we call grace. In fact, we can only perform the works of charity for which St. Paul commended the Philippians because of God’s grace. How do we receive the grace we need? We receive God’s grace through the sacraments. Hence, going to confession regularly and participating in Mass frequently are not just important, but necessary.
If you are too busy doing other things to accept God’s gracious invitation now, what makes you think that, unlike those in the parable, you will be ready when the Bridegroom returns? This prompts the question; how did Paul receive the strength from God he needed to live the often-difficult circumstances his apostolic ministry caused him to face?
Mass connects the already of God’s kingdom to the not-yet we live each day, especially those difficult circumstances that constitute our crosses. Participating in Mass allows us to face up to the incompleteness of this life and to experience the goodness God has in store for those who love him enough to accept his invitation, which goodness is described so beautifully in our reading from Isaiah and in Psalm 23, our responsorial today.
“Mass” comes from the Latin word missa as found in the words of the Latin dismissal, said at the end of the liturgy: Ite, missa est (“Go, the dismissal is made, or, more colloquially, “Go, you’re dismissed”). At the end of Mass, you are dismissed, sent forth, to make Christ, not only known, but present wherever you go and in whatever circumstances you find yourself.
We receive the strength we need from God to live our circumstances by gathering together for Eucharist, which means “to give thanks.” We are strengthened by our fellowship, our listening to God’s word, and receiving Christ together in Holy Communion. It is our participation in Mass that makes our sacrificial service outside of Mass a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice to God and allows us to be Christ’s co-workers in the redemption of the world. It is how we live the already in the not-yet. It gives us hope, especially when we are tempted to despair. Christ is our hope.