On Called To Feast
SERMON PREACHED 8 SEPTEMBER 1996
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. For the first time, when I heard today's reading of the Gospel (St. Matthew 22: 1–14 -Ed.) I was struck very deeply and painfully by the passage. In it we are presented with a man who, like all other beggars who had been called by the king to his feast, came, but instead of sharing the king's joy, accepting to enter the halls of the king and to become a partaker of the rejoicing, thought only of one thing: to walk as fast as possible into the dining room and eat.
What struck me in it was the fact that many of us – probably too many – come to the Liturgy not simply to meet face to face with the Living God become man, God who, having become man, chose to suffer and to die, to open for us the gates of Paradise – the door to the bridal feast. Instead of thinking of coming and meeting Him in adoration, in awe, we often come to church – and indeed this is the case with our private prayers – that we approach only to receive. The man who is depicted in today's Gospel is a man who had a total indifference, cared nothing for the joy of meeting the King, of sharing the feast with others, of being in His presence, purely for the beauty and joy of it.
Aren't we very often like him? Do we come to the liturgy, do we come to prayer simply to say to God, 'Give, I want something, I need something. You can and therefore You must; it is Your duty to give.' So often people think of praying just as a beggar thinks of stretching out his hand in the hope that something will be put into it, and so often we come to the Liturgy, which is a miracle of the most intimate and deepest possible meeting with the Lord, in order to receive, to receive peace, encouragement, and to receive something which we should not dare to receive in such circumstances, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. And I could give you an example of it which struck me more than forty years ago, on one unique occasion, thanks be to God. I had not yet begun the Liturgy, and suddenly I heard someone knocking at the door of the sanctuary. I came out, and there was a gentleman, not an ignoramus, but a man who had received religious education in his youth in Russia. He was knocking at the door, and when I asked him what he wanted he said, 'Is this the place where I can receive Communion?' I said 'No, you must stay for the Liturgy, make your confession, and we will see whether you are ready for it.' And his answer was, 'I have no time for all this, I have been invited to lunch. Can't I receive Communion at once and go?'
This was an extreme situation, a monstrous one, but isn't it the extreme of something which happens to most of us, that we come to God, whether in prayer or in Communion, simply to snatch something, expecting something and claiming it from Him? I think we should give more thought to the way in which we come to church, in which we enter it. So often, I notice that in the most holy moments of the liturgy, someone comes, turns his or her back on what is happening in the sanctuary, goes to buy candles, and goes around lighting candles at the moment when the prayers of consecration are being said, or a blessing is given, or special prayers are being offered. The liturgy, as every service in church, is not simply a private affair in which we come to beg and to receive, or even not to beg but to claim a right and to receive. It is a moment when we should enter like the publican into the church, knowing that we are unworthy to cross the threshold of the house of God, the place which is His unreservedly, while the world has been betrayed into the hands of evil. We should enter and stop for one moment, to realise where we are, in Whose presence we are, and then become aware of what is happening at that moment. We should be here before the beginning but, if we are late, at least stop, reflect and observe, and move only if there is a moment in which this can be done without – I shall say this sharply – blasphemy or sacrilege, ignoring what is happening: the words of consecration, the prayer to the Mother of God, or any other prayer which is central to the event.
Let us reflect on this. Let us all re-read this small passage in which we are told about this man who, invited to meet the King face to face, to have the joy of meeting Him, the miracle of an encounter, discounted all and said, 'I only want to take.' Amen.