Updated: Sep 14, 2020
On the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, which happens to also be the Sunday before the Elevation of the Holy Cross, the congregation hears a number of Gospel readings that prepares us for this upcoming Feast.
One of the parables is from Matthew 22:1-14 and it compares the Kingdom of Heaven to an elaborate marriage feast. Christ says that "The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a certain King, which made a marriage for his son."
The King, we are told, sent off his servants to invite people to the wedding feast, but none of the invited guests responded at all. If you have ever organised a wedding or major event, you would know how frustrating it is to chase people for their RSVPs.
In the parable, the King sent his servants a second time, and this time the servants told those invited of the wonderful things that had been prepared for the feast. Again, no one came, but instead the people gave excuses that they were too busy with the farm and with business to attend the feast. Some of these men even seized hold of the servants and murdered them.
The infuriated King, quite understandably, sent his army to punish and destroy the murderers. The King then sent his servants out into the highways to bring in strangers, so that there would be guests for the wedding and the feast.
Finally, the King saw a man at the feast who had failed to wear the proper garments, and challenged by the King as to why he was there without a wedding garment, the man remained silent. The King had him bound up and thrown into the outer darkness.
What lessons are we to draw from this parable?
St Gregory the Dialogist writes that the King is God, and the marriage is symbolic of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the union of Christ's divine and human natures into one Person. The feast is symbolic of Christ's Church, the Orthodox Church, which exists, we remember, in heaven and on earth.
St. John Chrysostomos' commentary is similar to this interpretation. He adds that, at first, Christ invites the people of the Old Covenant, the Jews, to join this great marriage feast, which is the Church. But they fail to respond. He invites them a second time, and they are too busy with earthly concerns, to which St. John Chrysostomos states that "when spiritual things call us, there is no press of business that has the power of necessity."
When Christ persists with His invitations to the Jews, they kill Him, they crucify Him, just as they killed the Old Testament Prophets. St. John comments that Christ sought to win them over before His crucifixion, and even after it "He still urges them, striving to win them over." However, they refused Him, and so it is then that the ordinary people of the "highways," the Gentiles, are invited, since the wedding feast, the Church, must be filled. St John writes that when the Jews "were not willing to be present at the marriage, then He called others," He called you and me.
You will remember that in the parable, when the King's servants are killed, the King sends forth an army to destroy their city and punish them. So it was, St. John writes, that less than four decades after Christ's Ascension, Jerusalem fell to the armies of Vespasian and Titus, and it was utterly destroyed and the people there killed or dispersed to the four corners of the earth.
So, we know who failed to attend the wedding and the reasons why. But what about those gathered from the highway? Through this parable, Christ is inviting us to His feast, that is to His Church, so that here we may partake of His sacred foods, those that are filled with Grace—the Holy Mysteries—and that prepare us spiritually for eternal life with Him, for life in that eternal aspect of the Church. But, for this feast we must prepare, we must attire ourselves with the proper garment or we shall be cast, like the man in the parable, into the outer darkness. Imagine if you had put 'formal' as the dress code on your wedding invitation and your guests ignored this, coming dressed in dirty t-shirts and shorts. It would be a great sign of disrespect and it would be unlikely that they would even get into the venue!
This garment Christ speaks of is, of course, a spiritual one. Without it, without preparing ourselves for the wedding feast, we are no better than those who rejected and crucified Christ. A failure to prepare ourselves is a form of rejection as well. It would be disrespectful and insulting to the King.
Now, how do we apply that which we read in this Gospel lesson to our daily lives and how do we assure that our wedding garment is proper to the occasion of our meeting with our King?
We are blest by God to be members of His Church. We have been invited to partake of the feast and we have accepted the invitation. When we attend Divine Liturgy, we share in the feast that the King, Christ Jesus, has readied for us and doing this we prepare ourselves for an eternal feast in the life to come. St. Gregory the Dialogist writes that the wedding garment symbolises the virtue of charity. We prepare ourselves to meet our King and God by developing within ourselves this virtue of charity, because at the end, at its highest development, all of the other spiritual virtues come down to this. Those who will be saved are those who acquire selfless and unconditional love, a love of God and a love of their fellow human being. When we attend the Divine Liturgy wrapped in this cloth of love, we are dressed to meet our Maker.
If so much effort and preparation is required on our behalf, why visit the wedding feast at all? This is threaded into one of the other Gospel readings in today's service, John 3:13-17.
St Theophan the Recluse explains that on the Sunday before the Holy Cross, this reading has a special relevance to us. We are told, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). Faith in the Son of God, crucified in the flesh for our sake, is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). It is the living source of moral aspirations and dispositions - the receptacle of the abundant grace of the Holy Spirit, which always abides in the heart, and of timely secret inspirations sent from above at the hour of need.
Faith combines one’s convictions which attract God’s goodwill, with power from above. Both of these is what makes up the possession of eternal life. While this life is kept intact, a Christian is unyielding, because by cleaving to the Lord, he is one in spirit with the Lord, and nothing can overcome the Lord.
St Theophan the Recluse tells us why people fall - it is from the weakening of faith. If Christian convictions weaken, moral energy weakens as well. To the degree of this weakening, grace is crowded out of the heart, and evil urges raise their head. An inclination towards these urges comes at a convenient hour, and there is a fall. Be a watchful guardian of the Faith in everything it encompasses, and you will not fall. In this sense, St John says that whosoever is born of God do not commit sin (1 John 3:9).
When we prepare for the marriage feast - the Divine Liturgy - we have the opportunity to partake in the Body and Blood of Christ. We get to share in the salvific gifts given to us as a result of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. This spiritual experience opens the door to Eternal Life, where we will experience the joy of the infinite marriage feast of the Kingdom of God.