Friday, 9 November 2012

The Invitation to the Banquet..

+ + + In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. + + +
The invitation to today's dinner, to today's banquet, was tendered by our Lord God ages, ages before the dinner itself was to take place. For in the custom of that time, when some important person was to have a banquet for his neighbors, for those of his family, for those of his business, he would first send an invitation by a messenger to each one of them so that they would know that on such and such a day there will be a banquet at my house, and you are invited to participate. And then on the day itself, again a messenger would go to each and every house to remind the people who were invited that you have been invited to this banquet, and you are expected at such and such an hour today, in order to remind them so no one would have excuse.
There was plenty of time between the first invitation and the second, so that a person could adjust his program, could do whatever was necessary so he could be at this important occasion.
And so it was with our Lord God. From the time of the Old Testament, He had informed the people of Israel that there would be a banquet, there would be an opportunity to eat in the Kingdom of Heaven. This invitation was tendered by the Holy Prophets; this invitation was tendered by those beloved of God in the Old Testament who told the people of God that this invitation had been tendered by the Holy Trinity, and it would be soon fulfilled.
But when the time came, and the banquet was ready, and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, as our Savior says, and they were called to participate, to accept the Messiah, to greet him as the Blessed One of Israel, and to sit at that table which He Himself describes as the banquet table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, with those righteous of the Old Testament, then with many excuses, and sometimes with violence, and finally with the most violent act that has ever been perpetrated in the history of mankind, they slew that Lamb of God, they slew our Savior, they slew the Messiah, and refused the invitation.
This is the application of this parable to the people of Israel, but as we stand here in the Church of God, and we hear this Gospel read, we must seek to know how it is that the parable of our Savior has its application in my heart and in your heart. How is this to be understood now, today, in the Orthodox Church, in our parish?
Again, those who have been invited are each and every one of us. How have we been invited? We have been invited through our holy baptism, through our holy chrismation. This invitation to participate in the Kingdom has been tendered to each and every one of us. And how do we respond? What is our response when we are called to the banquet? Some go willingly and quickly and eagerly. And we see these souls who have an eagerness, and they have a desire that at every opportunity they are at the banquet. But how different it is for so many of us as we offer various excuses for not participating in the banquet.
Our Lord foresaw these excuses, and has categorized them in three categories, which, however, cover all of the reasons that any of us have for not participating in the banquet of life that is the Divine Liturgy. I have purchased a plot of land, and I must go and see it, say those of us whose land is more important than church, whose savings, and whose stocks and bonds, and properties are more important, and take us away from preparation for the banquet. But that land is not only that, for those who are poor and have no land are not excused from this reason. For the land that they attend to, and tend, and take care of is the land, the dirt, their bodies, their material self. For the care is for how I look, what I eat, and my body, my health. Everything about me is more important than what is going to happen in the next life.
And then there are those who have bought five yoke of oxen. Those yoke of oxen in our times are our senses, which are yokes; they're pairs. Our sight, our hearing, our smell, taste, our touch: our senses are in pairs. And we attend to them, and we fill them full of sensations. Our eyes don't have time or the interest to look at holy things, at pictures, at images of our Savior. But rather we fill them with sinful images, material images, images that are anything but of the Kingdom. And our smell and our taste much prefers the foods of this world rather than the simple foods of the fast. And we hear the music of our time, the popular music, the music that strokes our senses and our carnality, rather than to hear the hymns and praises of God. And our touch much prefers smooth garments, fashionable, silky, presentable garments rather than the simple and coarse garments of humility. And we find many excuses not to attend the banquet.
How terrible this is my brothers. How terrible it is, especially when we think that if we were to be invited to the palace of a king, or to a city hall, or to the state house of a governor, or the city hall of a mayor, or of any other earthy person of some importance; if we received an invitation to a meal at the White House, the first thing we would do would be to show it to everyone. And then we would spend the time between the reception of the invitation and our attendance at this banquet preparing in every way possible, so that we might be there, and be there as we should be. Our clothing would be just so; we would make sure that we were rested; we would make sure that we got up and prepared ourselves in plenty of time; we would make sure that we had not eaten, so that we would not go with a heavy stomach and sleepy to the banquet. Everything would be just so, so that at the precise moment when we are called into the banquet room of this earthly person--who in the final analysis is made of the same stuff as you and me, and whose body will rot in the grave the same as you and me--when we are ushered into this banquet hall, immediately we take the place that is pointed out to us, and deem it a great honor to be in the presence of so illustrious a person and so luminous a company. And here we are invited again. We were invited to the banquet by our holy baptism years ago. This banquet was sealed with the gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit in our holy chrismation. And we are called at the small entrance. The priest calls Come let us worship and fall down before Christ. Save us O Son of God, save us O Son of God!
In the times of our empire the emperor would enter into the church with the patriarch together with his retinue, together with everyone, would come into the church so that they could participate after those beginning Psalms in the Divine Liturgy. How many of us are here to heed the call Come let us fall down; come let us worship and fall down before Christ?
And later on in the Divine Liturgy the minister, the steward of the liturgy calls out Let us give ourselves totally to the worship of Christ our God. Let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life unto Christ our God. Who hears this?
And finally again the steward of the mysteries comes forth holding the chalice. The banquet is served, and he calls out With the fear of God, faith, and love draw near. But who of us who have given ourselves over to the attention of our land, and of our senses, and of our families--for this is the meaning of I have married a wife. The excuse that is given then is that I have family obligations; I have community obligations; I have responsibilities, and I can't be there; I can't participate.
Who of us again with our land, and our senses, and our family obligations, who hears? And yet it is not a mere man who calls you. You see the priest, you see the minister of the altar. But it is not he who calls you to Come let us worship and fall down before Christ, nor is it another man who calls you to Commit yourselves, and one another, and all your life to Christ our God. And still less is it a man who calls you to the chalice, so that with fear of God, faith, and love you might participate in the banquet. For all of these invitations are tendered by us servants in the place of the Master. For He who calls us is the Holy Trinity Himself. He Who bids us to the banquet is our Lord God of Sabaoth, our God Who is a consuming fire, our God Who has made it possible for us to sit at the table with Him, and participate in the feast. Therefore, when we show contempt, or at the very least carelessness, to Whom are we showing contempt, and towards Whom are we careless? To the priest? To our brethren? Not at all. But it is to our Lord God Himself that we show this lack of respect.
My beloved brothers and sisters, we have but a few days until the feast of the Nativity of our Savior. And in those few days, those few days that are left to respond to the invitation of the Master of the house. We can prepare ourselves if we do it with real desire; we can prepare ourselves if we do it with real love; if we prepare ourselves with understanding of the election that we have through our holy baptism to the banquet of life. We can participate. It is not too late. By fasting, and prayer and confession and almsgiving and all of those other things that we know to be necessary so that we can come to the table of life. Let us prepare, laying aside all earthly cares. Let us prepare ourselves so that we can participate, and not be of those who shall not taste of my banquet. But rather with the yearning in our hearts, let us go forth with clean hands and pure hearts to the chalice of life, there to become of the elect, not only those who have been invited, but of those who are elect of Christ our Savior through His loving kindness, through His love for mankind. For He is One of the Trinity Who is to be worshipped together with His Father and the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages.

How the Church Creates Spiritual Ties

The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are its members. The Apostle Paul teaches that each member must fulfill his duty for the good of all. This means that if we belong to the Church and follow Her statutes, we will continually strengthen our spiritual ties in Christ. This will come about through the Church's prayers, Mysteries, services and mutual fellowship.
      Chief meaning in the Church is given to the Mysteries, and for this reason we will examine their effects.

      The Mystery of BaptismThrough this Mystery of renewal, the Church unites the infant to a new life in Christ. It would seem that this Mystery has meaning only for the one being baptized, but if we consider the godparents, we will perceive a greater meaning in this sacrament. The godfather and godmother are drawn by the Church to participate in the Christian upbringing of the child, and thereby enter into new ties with the family of the baptized. After this, the Church considers them to be spiritual relatives of the family of the baptized and therefore forbids inter-marriage between them. Thus, with each new baptism, the foundation of the Church, the family, is strengthened. Even if not all godparents fully acknowledge their obligations, yet around every baptismal font new spiritual ties spring up between members of the Church.

      The Mystery of CommunionFrom the very earliest times of Christianity, this Mystery was looked upon as a means of maintaining spiritual ties between members of the Church. The Savior said: "He who eats My flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him" (Jn. 6:56). The essence of this mystical unity is difficult to grasp, but leaves no doubt that all the faithful, through Holy Communion, enter into spiritual brotherhood through Jesus Christ. And when we say "brother-in-Christ" or write in a letter "with love in Christ," then we witness thereby to our spiritual kinship with other members of the Church. Such a spiritual tie between us goes far beyond all other human relationships, for it has an eternal, unsurpassable meaning. Therefore, the greater the number of the faithful that receive Holy Communion in a parish, and the more often they approach the Holy Chalice, the more the bonds of Christian love between them will be strengthened thereby.

      The Mystery of Marriage By this Mystery the Church creates a family, a new cell of the faithful. In essence, a sort of spiritual miracle is performed in this Mystery: from two previously separate persons, the Church fashions the new ties of relationship between husband and wife. And in the Rite of Matrimony the priest prays for them: "O Eternal God, Who hast brought into unity them that were sundered, and hast ordained for them an indissoluble union of love, do Thou Thyself bless these, Thy servants, guiding them unto every good work."

      Although this "union of love" includes the physical unity, its chief sense is the spiritual union, after the model of Christ and His Church. And that there should always be of necessity mutual spiritual understanding between the groom and the bride in a Christian marriage, we have a direct indication in the following passage in the epistles of the Apostle Paul: "Have we not power to eat and drink? Hae we not power to lead about a sister, wife, as well as other apostles and brethren of the Lord and Cephas?" (I Cor. 9:5).

      This shows us that true Christian marriage can take place only between the faithful. In choosing for himself a partner for life, the groom must, above all, find for himself a "sister-in-Christ," and the bride a "brother-in-Christ," after which the Church unites them in the bonds of marriage for their whole life. This is the reason why the Church considers marriages with persons of different confessions undesirable, and still more so, with unbelievers. Such marriages, as it were, remain outside the general life of the Church and cannot be stable. Only a common faith can be a true foundation for marriage; and everything else will follow.

      The Mystery of Confession In this Mystery new spiritual ties also appear between penitent and confessor. Here the confessor, appointed by the Church, becomes a spiritual father and takes upon himself care of his spiritual children. Thus, it is so important to have as one's spiritual father not just any priest, but a regular guide, as is done in monasteries. It is possible for laypeople to have such a regular confessor in the form of an elder to whom one commits oneself for his whole life. Thus, the Mystery of confession maintains the deep spiritual relationships between the clergy and the laity. But the spiritual father has a particularly great meaning for monastics, when they completely renounce the world and commit themselves to a spiritual father, who takes the place of their father and mother.

      Such is the meaning of the Holy Mysteries in the creation of spiritual ties within the Church, on the foundation of Christian love. They sustain the faith of members of the Church and strengthen their Christian life, both family and personal. In such conditions there cannot be the type of loneliness and neglect among Christians which is presently observed among people lacking any sort of spiritual bonds. Such unbelieving people marry and beget children, but all this has a casual and temporary character. Their marriages fall apart, their children are neglected and perish, both physically and spiritually. Even their family relationships are based not so much on love as on greedy calculation, in order to receive help, protection or an inheritance, and so as not to be left alone in their old age. And how many suicides are there today, that arise chiefly because of unbelief and the loneliness bound up with it?

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 28, No. 3 (May-June 1978), pages 20-31. Translated by the Reverend Andrei Alexiev, pastor of St. Vladimir's Church, Houston, Texas, from: Orthodox Russia, 1976, No. 13 (1/14 July), pp. 8-13. This article was originally a lecture delivered by Fr. Sergei Shukin at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary. 
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