During this year of a pandemic, when we’ve all quarantined and separated ourselves from one another, it’s so hard to stay disconnected from people. Fellowship and communion with one another offer us life, and yet, the pandemic keeps us apart! I look around at our church and see it half full, missing people I haven’t seen in the past 10 months and wondering if I’ll see them in the next six months? I’ve started to visit some of the elderly from our church for Christmas, taking them Holy Communion, but I realize I can’t see those in the nursing homes. Even some of the elderly in their own homes feel uncomfortable with me or anyone else coming for a visit. What challenging and depressing times!
Then I think of our most joyous celebrations. For Thanksgiving, I couldn’t visit my parents because of the pandemic and my immediate family didn’t gather with our large extended family due to COVID. It seems that Christmas celebrations will be even more subdued with the newest wave of the virus. This separation from loved ones, and disconnection with one another is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. It’s literally exasperated mental illness among so many.
Celebrating together plays a central role in life. It defines who we are as human beings. We were meant to walk through life together, celebrating and bringing joy and love to one another. This is why Christ used images of celebration to help people understand life in the Kingdom of God.
Remember, during the time of Jesus 2000 years ago, people faced a much harsher reality than many of us today. Life was a continual drudgery of toil and struggle, facing oppression under foreign rulers and subjugation from heavy and unjust taxes. Death was frequent and came at young ages. Few people during that time could comprehend life as something comfortable and easy.
When I think of how life was years ago, it still is that way for many people throughout the world. People in places of conflict and war. People living in poverty and deprivation. I witnessed this type of life in a very small way when I lived in a Kenyan village 30 years ago. Some days, I would wake up at the crack of dawn, before everyone else. I’d sit outside watching the sun rise, saying my prayers, and writing in my journal, and I’d notice how the women were the first to arise. They woke up and immediately began chopping wood for the fire to cook the day’s meals. Then they walked a mile or so down to the nearby river to collect water, carrying it back by placing buckets on their heads. A typical day of cooking, cleaning, working in the fields as well as caring for the compound followed, with the women constantly going back to the river to get more and more water for other chores.
I reflected on what a harsh, monotonous reality these Africa women face day after day. Every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. No day off. No vacation. Little change. Only one thing broke the monotony and drudgery of such days, and that was times of celebration. A birth. A wedding. A holy feast like Christmas. Of course, these women still had to work hard on those special days, yet the celebrations broke their monotony with the joy!
It’s no wonder why Christ used the analogy of a celebration to describe the Kingdom of Heaven in today’s Gospel reading. He wanted people to realize that the Kingdom of Heaven was not only comparable to the best of any earthly feasts, but actually far supersedes worldly festivities.
Imagine, for people who struggled to put food on their table, our Lord describes the Kingdom of God as a King’s feast and banquet hall. For people who faced the reality of harsh monotony and labor, He offers a taste of paradise as a never-ending celebration!
Here lies the Good News of our Faith. Christianity is not a joyless, cheerless, way of life strictly following rules and regulations. The Good News of Jesus Christ offers Good News about a celebration today and into eternity!
We get a sense of this celebration as we prepare for Christmas. The feast of the Nativity epitomizes good news of great joy. Joy from angels. Wonder from shepherds. A miracle in a manger. Gifts from the magi. Praise and adoration from all creation. An overarching spirit of divine love which reaches from eternity into our present reality. All these words can barely describe the inexpressible celebration of Christmas, and the spirit which God inaugurates into the world with His coming.
Deep within our souls, don’t we all want joy, and the joy of experiencing this heavenly celebration? Don’t we all want to take part in an everlasting promise of God’s blessed banquet?
Today’s Gospel story, however, not only tells us about God’s Kingdom as a celebration, but also warns us about the only thing that prevents us from entering into this divine celebration, from this eternal love of God – and the only thing is ourselves! Jesus uses an analogy of a King inviting guests to come to his banquet hall, and yet shows how each guest makes an excuse for not attending. The first is too consumed with his work and business and can’t get away. The second focuses on newly bought possessions and can’t see past these. And the third allows family to interfere with the King’s feast. The excuses aren’t bad in and of themselves – work, pleasure, and family – but each, when they become our priority lead us away from the Lord’s celebration.
Christ warns us to look at our own lives carefully and ask ourselves – what place does work and career have in our lives? What priority do our hobbies, and our pursuit for pleasure play in our schedules? And what about family? As wonderful and beautiful as family may be, do we place our family before God? Do we allow anything to interfere with the Divine Feast to which we are invited?
Another way to look at this is to remember that every Sunday God invites us to partake in a feast – in the mystical supper of His Kingdom! The Divine Liturgy which we celebrate is actually a participation in God’s heavenly kingdom. We join the saints. We sing with the angels. We stand before the throne of God. We receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and commune with Him. Through this celebration, our sins are forgiven and our lives are renewed. Imagine, our Lord invites us every week to His heavenly banquet!!!
Yet, how do we respond? How many excuses do we find to skip coming to the Divine Liturgy. We come late. We come unprepared. We don’t fully engage in the celebration when we are here. We allow ourselves to easily be distracted. Are we like the invited guests in today’s Gospel story? Do we make excuses and offend the King who has invited us as VIP special guests? It’s something for us to deeply reflect upon.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says to each one of us. Will we respond to this invitation and make room in our hectic schedules and in our busy lives to enter into the joy of the Lord?
Celebrating together plays a central role in life. Celebrating together defines who we are as human beings. We are meant to walk through life together, celebrating and bringing joy to one another.
Even though we all are getting tired of this pandemic, and the social distancing is disturbing our mental health, we do have ways to still come together and celebrate. Maybe our Christmas dinners and New Year’s gatherings may be limited, but we all still have the opportunity to gather together and celebrate in the Kingdom of Heaven each week in the Divine Liturgy!
Jesus Christ invites us to His heavenly banquet each Sunday at the Eucharist. Let us lay aside all our excuses and say YES to His invitation by entering into His joyous celebration!