Today we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the oldest church in Christendom, the Mother Church, dating back, in its original form, to 324 AD. It, not St. Peter’s, is the parish church of the Pope, and so it’s an apt symbol of the entire Church and of our world-wide union with the Pope. I thought it might be worthwhile on this Feast to reflect on the subject of the Church and our relationship to her. I’m tempted to put you through a little exercise I was put through on a priest retreat I once made. The retreat master asked each of us to think about how we would describe the Church and how we felt about her, preferably summing up what we were thinking with a memorable image of some sort.
One of the retreatants captivated us all with this thought-provoking image. The Church, he said, is like a very beautiful woman, one, however, who, with age and the rigors of a hard life and mistakes made along the way, is no longer fresh, young, and alluring. She still has much to give but also much to be forgiven, and, if she were just anyone, might not attract one’s allegiance; but as it is she’s like my mother, he said, and so, with all her wrinkles, still beautiful, and with all her mistakes, still deserving of love and gratitude. When people bad-mouth her, it’s because to them she’s nobody special, just another old lady, but, he continued, to me she’s very special and utterly unique, and what they say breaks my heart, just as when she goes astray it breaks my heart. The one thing I’m certain of, he concluded, is that I’ll never abandon her; I owe her too much, and she needs me too much.
Now I’m going to guess that almost no non-practicing Catholics feel that way about the Church, and I suspect very few practicing Catholics do either. I hope I’m wrong about that. I’ll bet, however, that many of you do feel towards spouses, children, other family, even friends the way that priest said he felt towards the Church, but you probably don’t feel that way about strangers. If you hear something bad about a stranger, read it in the news, let’s say, what you hear is all you know, and that pretty much sums up the person for you. When it’s family or friends, what you hear is received in the context of a much broader picture and weighed against all the good you know about them as well as your emotional attachment to them.
I wonder if often we treat and judge the Church like a stranger rather than like family or a friend, perhaps like an institution or a business, a filling station, maybe, or some other service provider. The Bible’s vision of the Church is very like the one that priest-retreatant described. So is the saints’ vision of the Church, even though some of them have been persecuted by her. St. Teresa of Avila, whose Feast was October 15, was hauled before the Inquisition, but as she lay dying, her last words were, “I am a daughter of the Church.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of a church, really the Feast of the Church: her long history, her universal reach, her enormous contributions to souls and civilization, her terrible trials, her divine origin, and yes, her oh-so-human imperfections. It’s all there, and we can make whatever we like of it. What we make of it will depend largely on whether we see her as our Mother or a stranger, beloved family or just a business. It’s worth giving some thought.
It’s not surprising that on more than one occasion Jesus uses the imagery of a banquet to describe heaven. It’s true that no image can capture the reality of which St. Paul said, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the mind of anyone what God has in store for those who love him,” but if we’re going to try to imagine what heaven is like, a banquet or wedding feast, with its food, family, friends, and a general feeling of happiness and well-being at least hints in the right direction. So, as I say, it’s not surprising that Jesus uses such imagery.
What is surprising, and disconcerting, in the parable we hear in today’s gospel is the reaction of those invited to the feast. We’re told that initially everyone who was invited refused to come, that when the king sent servants to repeat his invitation, some again refused and went on their way; others actually killed the messengers! It looks as if Jesus’ parable is less about heaven and more about the waywardness and cruelty of the human heart, and a look at the news each day suggests that he wasn’t exaggerating the human capacity for stupidity or brutality. We’d like to think such behavior is the exception to the rule, and it very well may be, but what if it’s possible to refuse heaven in less stupid and brutal ways?
C.S. Lewis, the famous English author of The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote a little book called The Great Divorce in which he imagines a busload of people driven from hell to heaven where they’re offered admittance. Shockingly, but I think realistically, all but one of the passengers refuses the invitation to heaven. A man is offended at the suggestion that he’s being forgiven; he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. A woman looks through the Pearly Gates and sees to her horror someone against whom she’s long held a grudge and decides that if that’s the kind of person residing in heaven, then she wants no part of it. And so on, until all but one of the passengers on the bus chooses to return to hell.
The Great Divorce—the title refers to the divorce between heaven and hell—is a very unsettling book because, if you’re like me, you’ll see a bit of yourself in many of those who choose to walk away from God when it becomes clear what acceptance of God and his heaven actually entails. So even though Jesus’ parable may seem extreme in its picture of human depravity—a good attention-getting device—it’s intended to encourage us to look seriously at those seemingly minor flaws in our character, which seen in the full light of Christ might prompt us to turn from God rather than have to swallow our pride, resentment, self-pity, or admit our all-too-human imperfections.
What though of the last part of the parable? This is more than a surprise; it’s a shock and seems terribly unfair. Someone is invited to the feast with no warning, no time to prepare, and accepts, but when the king sees him without a proper wedding garment, he ties him up and throws him out. What the heck are we to make of this? .
Well first, it’s very likely that the king, having invited unprepared bystanders to the feast, would have provided wedding garments for his guests, as restaurants used sometimes to provide a jacket for those who didn’t realize they needed one to dine in that particular establishment. The fact that this man wasn’t wearing one, therefore, indicated a cavalier, presumptuous attitude. He didn’t think he needed one.
Second, when the king questions the man, we’re told that he was reduced to silence. Fr. John Keep, whose website I’ve recommended to you before (www.fatherjohnkeep.org), says that the man’s sin was in his silence. He failed to say he was sorry. He wasn’t contrite. Fr. Keep says that given the weakness of human nature, it’s not likely any of us will become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, something Jesus tells us we must do; but, says Fr. Keep, if we can’t all be perfect, we can all be contrite. We can all say we’re sorry and mean it. For Fr. Keep the wedding garment is simply contrition, sincere sorrow for sin.
It’s important that we try our best to be the people God wants us to be. It’s just as important that we are sorry for our sins, failures, and bad habits and inclinations. One of the reasons it’s so good to go to confession regularly is that it’s excellent preparation for the great confession we’re all going to have to make when we stand before our Maker and Judge. When that day comes, the problem won’t be that God may throw us into the outer darkness. The problem, if there is one, will be that we may have nothing to say to God, or worse, that we may tell God he has nothing to say to us.
Confession is very good practice for the ultimate encounter. How foolish not to take advantage of as many dress rehearsals for that encounter as possible.
Like many of Jesus’ teachings, the one we find in today’s parable of the two sons is multi-leveled. On one level the message of the parable might be summed up in a proverb like “Actions speak louder than words.” On another, the parable is more subtle. Notice what Jesus does with it. He compares the chief priests and elders of the people to the son who is all talk and the tax-collectors and prostitutes to the son who in the end does the father’s will. And the example he cites to show his analogy is apt is the way each responded to the preaching of John the Baptist.
John came preaching a message of judgment and repentance. The chief priests were stung by John’s suggestion that they might be subject to judgment and in need of repentance, and so rejected him. The tax-collectors (Jews who collaborated with the hated Romans to fleece their own people) and the prostitutes heard John and recognized the truth of his words. They knew he was a prophet of God, and they knew they were in need of repentance. They may very well have felt trapped in their life and unable to change their ways, but they knew they were in bad shape and responded to John’s preaching as a flower might respond to the first droplets of rain in a parched desert.
The chief priests and elders talked a good show, and if the only norm of conduct were respectability, they’d have it all over the tax-collectors and prostitutes. The latter were definitely disreputable, but when God sent them a prophet, they believed in him because they knew what they were, and they knew they needed help.
There are any number of ways of saying all this. One would be that there are only two kinds of people in this world: sick people who know they are sick and know they need a doctor, and sick people who think they’re perfectly healthy and think they don’t need a doctor. The first can be cured. The second can’t. Peter Kreeft says it another way. He says that the two kinds of people on earth are saints who know they are sinners and sinners who think they are saints. The first can be forgiven. The second can’t.
What the tax-collectors and prostitutes had going for them was that they were in touch with reality. They know who and what they were, so they knew they needed help, and they recognized that help in John the Baptist and in Jesus much more often than the chief priests and elders of the people did.
The ancients used to say that the beginning of wisdom was to know oneself. It’s a life’s work to do so, but the more we know ourselves, the more we’ll know our need of healing, and the deeper will be our relationship to the Divine Physician. Come to think of it, It’s probably not a very healthy sign that so few Catholics nowadays feel the need for confession.