Monday, October 13, 2014

Feast on the Mountaintop

Mass Readings for Sunday, October 12/28th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 25:6-10
Psalm 23:1-6
Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
Matthew 22:1-14

Heaven. We all want to go there. Most of us probably don’t want to go just yet, though I think we ought to be prepared, what with Mississippi State being #1 in the country and the end of the world likely soon to follow! But seriously, we all want to know what Heaven is like. Most often we take those things about which we are most passionate and put them on a grand scale. If we like cotton candy, Heaven is a whole world of cotton candy where we can eat it all day and never get a stomachache. If we like cars, Heaven is a car show where we can drive anything before our eyes.  If we like clothes, Heaven is a closet bigger than any mall we’ve ever stepped foot in.  But the reality is so so much more that we cannot even conceive of it, and yet the Lord in His mercy gives us some clues to help us at least think about it.

From Isaiah the prophet we hear that intriguing description: “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will provide for all people a feast of rich food and choice wines; juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain He will destroy the veil that veils all people.” Heaven is like a great banquet. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, after all, since the Lord is often found sitting at table or sharing meals with others and a banquet is that place where joy is found in abundance, the senses are overwhelmed by food, drink, music, and dancing, and the person is able to know and be known by others. The thing, though, is that the feast of heaven isn’t just a normal feast – it’s a wedding feast.

The image of a wedding feast resonates greatly with me right now, as I celebrated weddings Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Those occasions were beautiful and filled with a palpable joy. The build-up and preparations that go into a wedding bring great excitement to the heart of those who take part and when the day finally arrives, you can almost grab handfuls of joy right out of the air. The radiant couple makes their vows to one another and exit the Church to applause, cheers, and great fanfare, proceeding to the party where time seems unimportant. Most people aren’t looking at their watch all through the reception afterward. Rather, they’re enjoying the good food, watching the ceremonial first dances, listening to the music, and visiting with family and friends. It’s a situation in which hours can easily pass without thinking about it because of the richness of the celebration. It’s fitting that such an image would be used to help us contemplate Heaven. But in order to really grasp the meaning of this imagery we have to ask ourselves three very important questions: Who is the Bridegroom? Who is the Bride? Where is the feast?

First, who is the Bridegroom? Well, of course, it’s God. All throughout the Scriptures we hear the Lord God described analogously as a spouse to the people of Israel. The prophets are loaded with these references, but another place we can look for great insight is the book of Song of Songs. This Old Testament book might seem a bit racy to some, but it is a poetic text that richly describes the love between a man and woman, symbolically between God and humanity. The New Testament picks up on this strong marital imagery in the person of Jesus, who we hear described by St. John the Baptist as the bridegroom and by St. Paul as spouse of the Church. The passionate love of the God, the Divine Bridegroom, is made manifest most clearly in the self-emptying love of the Crucifixion, where Christ died that to make His bride perfect, free from the bondage of sin.

We’ve answered the second question already – the Bride is the Church, it’s us! Though sinful individuals, the Catholic Church as a whole is that spotless, perfect bride that Christ Jesus came to join to Himself for all eternity. Interestingly, in Jesus’ day, it was part of the ceremony to have the bride undergo a washing with water before the wedding celebration (it’s always good to take a bath before your wedding, right?) and we see this lived out still. St. John the Baptist symbolically washes the Bride of the Lord Jesus in his baptisms of repentance and even today we become members of the Church only through the washing of water in Baptism. How great is the joy of the Heart of Jesus to see us spotless before Him waiting for us to say yes to His invitation to go to the marriage feast. So that leaves us at the final question: what is the feast?

Believe it or not, ladies and gentleman, you’re already there. The feast is happening right here in the celebration of the Mass. A couple of weeks back I spent time with the 1st, 2nd & 3rd grade students for CCD and went over the one thing I know best: the Mass. I brought them all over here and as we all walked up the front steps one boy looked up and said, “Wow! It’s like climbing a mountain!” The other students laughed a little and the adults just smiled at how imaginative he was, but I stopped him and said, “You are absolutely right and it was built to make us think that.” Have you ever noticed that most churches have step to get up into them? And that sanctuaries and altars are also elevated? It’s not just to be able to see better. “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will provide for all people a feast of rich food and choice wines.” On this mountain, right here (pointing to the altar), the Lord of Hosts feeds us with food the likes of which we could never have conceived to ask – His own flesh and blood. Here our Beloved comes to us to give us Himself and seeks to have us respond in an exchange of love. Here is where we the bride come to meet our Bridegroom and for a brief moment, the veil that veils all things is lifted.

You’ve likely noticed that when I celebrate Mass, I have placed over the chalice a cloth that matches my vestments. It’s called a chalice veil and I use it to remind myself and each of you of two realities. First, that we are the bride.  The veil is nice and decorative, but the attention to detail that I give to it is not just me being picky in the liturgy. It’s because of the simple fact that nobody wants to see a bride walk down the aisle looking sloppy. I spend those extra moments preparing the chalice veil just right to highlight the attention we need to have for ourselves as we come to meet the Lord. The wedding garment that Christ wants to see on us is that of virtue, holiness; the perfect bride prepared for the perfect Bridegroom. And the second reason I use the veil is because in that moment, we enter into the heavenly banquet, where the veil is lifted. The ultimate veil that veils all things is death, after which we will (hopefully!) be able to see God face to face. But for now, we come and have the veil lifted in a small way to He calls us all to Himself, literally coming forward to meet Him down the aisle. He comes and repeats those blessed words from Revelation 3, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” as He knocks at the door of our heart and stands there waiting for the answer to one simple question: Will you marry Me?

Reading Suggestions:
Jesus the Bridegroom by Dr. Brant Pitre
This Tremendous Lover by Fr. Eugene Boylan

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