A Sensual Feast

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Sometime invitations can be annoying. I blame Facebook. Someone creates an event for a movie night or a birthday party and hits a button to invite everyone on their friends list. So I end up inundated with a daily barrage of “invitations” to events that I have no interest in that don’t really effect me. These “invitations” end up filling my inbox like so much spam.

But other invitations are different. Wedding invitations are a good example. You feel honored to receive these. It would be considered crass to be invited to a wedding via Facebook or email. The dignity of the occasion requires something tangible.You get a fancy envelope in the mail containing a card, elegantly printed on heavy paper, maybe even with gold or silver ink. The text is printed in a scroll-work font and uses elegant language like, “You are cordially invited,” or, “The honor of your presence is requested.” You know right away this is not an invitation to some casual get-together. This is a life-altering event that you are being specifically requested to be a part of, which is why there is a second card included with its own return envelope, very often already addressed and stamped, for you to RSVP. These letters stand for the French phrase Répondez s’il vous plaît, meaning, “please respond.” And whether or not you can make it to the event, you have to respond. To just ignore it would be rude.

When we hear this Sunday’s gospel about a king inviting guests to a wedding feast for his son, we should understand that this is not the sort of annoying invitation we get spammed with on Facebook. You are being invited to a Royal Wedding. Can you imagine treating such an invitation with the same sort of disregard you might show to a Facebook invitation to attend a group yard sale?

Yet this is just what happens in the parable in the gospel! The king invites the guests, but they ignore the invitation. Some are actually so irritated by the invitation that they beat the servants sent to invite them. They have better things to do — they have crops to harvest, fields to plow, businesses to run. They are busy, much too busy to be bothered attending some wedding feast.

And this is the other annoying thing about invitations, isn’t it? They call us out of our busy lives, force us to drop what we are doing and rearrange our priorities. They inconvenience us. And that’s annoying. Because we are all so busy…

As a friend of mine recently told me, We make time for what is important to us. And the feast you are being invited to is very important. If we become so busy that we can’t make time for what God invites us to, we will end up missing out on something much greater than a swanky meal.

A sensual banquet

Whenever Jesus talks about what the kingdom of heaven is like, He uses parables and metaphors. This is because the goodness God wants to bestow upon us simply cannot be described in ordinary speech. As St. Paul puts it, eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor can it even be conceived by the heart of man what God has ready for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9). We simply have no idea. But the biblical imagery associated with heaven gives us clues. And the Bible uses very lavish imagery indeed.

This Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah tells of God providing “a feast of rich food and choice wines.” And to emphasize the point, the prophet elaborates: “…juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” This is the good stuff! And our psalm speaks of God leading us to verdant pastures and restful waters, of laying a table before us with overflowing cups (Ps 23). How luscious this sounds!

This is all amazingly sensual imagery. In fact, some may find it scandalous.

From almost the beginning of Christianity there has been a tendency among certain heretical groups to deny the goodness of material things, especially the human body and anything that might delight our senses. One of the earliest examples are the Manicheans, who were a gnostic sect. Like all gnostics, they were dualistic. They believed in two gods – a good god who created the spiritual realm, and an evil god who created the physical realm. The human person, according to their way of thinking, consisted of a good soul trapped in an evil body. Salvation meant freeing the soul from the body. They practiced a harsh asceticism involving extreme fasting, mandatory celibacy and denial of any physical pleasures.

While this denial of the goodness of creation has never been the authentic Christian understanding, many Christians unfortunately share in the gnostic suspicion of the body. Physical pleasure can lead us into sin, and so many think its best just not to enjoy pleasurable things at all, or at least severely limit our enjoyment. I once heard someone describe the supposed “Christian” view of sex as, “only within marriage, and even then you shouldn’t like it too much.” This is not our tradition.

Catholics believe in the inherent goodness of creation.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, and after everything He created, God said, “It is good.” This includes the human body. In fact, man (male and female) is the only part of creation Genesis says is made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). This means that the human body, more than any other physical thing, is capable of reflecting the divine image in the world. This is also why sins against the human body are so dire; because the body is so good.

The human body is sensual. I don’t mean “sensual” in the way we use the word today to mean erotically suggestive. I mean sensual in that we perceive the world around us through our senses — by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting things. It should come as no surprise that the same God who created us with senses would come to us through our senses. He wants us to perceive His goodness. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). Or as Jesus says, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” (Jn 6:53-56).

God invites us to a sensual feast. He wants to give us everything that is good, everything that delights us. This is why Isaiah doesn’t just say that God will give us food and drink, but juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.

Sensual pleasures are not bad. Heaven itself will be a sensual delight. But there is a danger here. We need to be careful. God wants to give us every good thing in a way that is good for us. As a human father, it makes me happy to buy my kids ice cream, but I know it wouldn’t be good for them to eat it all the time. So I teach them to enjoy it moderately, in an appropriate way.

All of us deal with sensual temptations. This doesn’t mean that the things we are tempted with are bad, just like ice cream isn’t bad. But we can easily be tempted to pursue something good in the wrong way. Remember Jesus, when He was fasting in the desert, was tempted by the devil with bread. Bread is not bad. Bread is good. In fact, when Jesus gives us His flesh to eat, it is in the form of bread. So why couldn’t Jesus have the bread? Because Satan wanted Jesus to value the bread more than He valued God’s will. And therein lies the sin.

You see, Satan has his hands tied in a certain regard. He cannot create anything. Only God can create. And everything God creates is good. So Satan only has good things to work with to tempt us into damnation. What he does, therefore, is to tempt us to value a lesser good over a greater good. He fools us into thinking sensual pleasure is an end in itself, rather than a sign pointing us to God, our ultimate end who is the only One capable of fulfilling all our desire. He wants us to settle for less than what God wants to give us.

We misuse and abuse the things of this world when we pursue their pleasures as ends in themselves. This is why drunkenness is a sin, while drinking is not. This is why gluttony is a sin, while eating is not.  We sin in pursuing these things merely for pleasure rather than enjoying them in such a way that gives glory to the God who provides them to us, with a spirit of gratitude. We don’t become holy by denying our bodies. We become holy by ordering our bodily desires in healthy and virtuous ways.

We have to be on guard especially against sexual sins because they malign in a direct way that image of God within us — “In the divine image He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). We image God most profoundly when we come together in love as male and female. Sex is not sinful. Sex is a wonderful, sensual good allowing us to share in God’s role as creator. It is a sin to pursue sexual pleasure as an end in itself, or to pursue sexual pleasure outside of its proper context.

A wedding feast

Why all this talk of sex? Weren’t we talking about a feast? The feast God invites us to is not only a sensual banquet, but a wedding feast. Despite the many Pinterest boards you may have seen, weddings are about more than pretty dresses, flower pedals, and fancy toasts. Weddings celebrate a man and woman coming together to form one flesh. Weddings celebrate sex. We don’t always put it so bluntly, but perhaps we ought to more often. Marriage is the sacrament of sex.

The world is confused about sex. Our society’s view of sex swings on a pendulum between the puritanical and the permissive — from nothing is permitted to nothing is forbidden — and the truth is found at neither of those extremes. The cure for our society’s sexual confusion is to embrace the Catholic Church’s sacramental understanding of sex. A sacrament is a visible sign of God’s presence in the world, and when man and woman come together to form one flesh (Gen 2:24), they image God in a very concrete way. They give themselves freely to one another in obedience to God’s very first command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). This is why marriage requires a life-long covenant (Mt 19:6). It involves a total gift of self. Not just body. Not just soul. And not just for a little while. But the entire self, body and soul, for the duration of one’s life. True love holds nothing back. The goodness of sex requires this sort of love as its context.

This is what weddings celebrate. This is why we hold lavish banquets to honor the blessed couple. This is the feast God invites us to.

But notice this detail in the parable: Whose wedding feast is it? The king (God) invites us to the wedding of his son. Jesus, the Son of God, is the Bridegroom. And who is Christ’s bride? It is the Church (cf. Eph 5:21-32). It is you and I. The wedding we are invited to is our own. How dare we not attend? How dare we show up not properly dressed in our wedding garments (i.e. not spiritually prepared for our union)?

Perhaps we are more comfortable thinking of the Church as the Body of Christ. We might struggle with thinking of ourselves as His Bride. But this is how Jesus thinks of us. His Body and His Bride are one and the same. The two have become one flesh. Like a groom, Jesus gives Himself to us freely, entirely, body, blood, soul and divinity, for all of His infinite and eternal life. Like a bride on her wedding night, we receive Christ into our bodies each time we receive the Eucharist. What we call Communion is our nuptial union with Christ. The altar is the marriage bed. The intimacy God desires to share with us surpasses even the most intimate of all human bonds.

The Mass is a wedding feast. This is why a properly celebrated liturgy should be a feast for the senses! We gaze upon beautiful vestments, statues, icons and stained glass. We inhale the scent of incense perfuming the air. We hear the choirs of angels sing, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” We taste His flesh upon our tongue and feel the warmth of His precious blood cascading down our throat. Our senses, firmly rooted in this world, transport us into another. For a moment, we are in heaven.

How wonderful that so many are invited to this wedding feast! How sad that so few respond to the invitation.

Let us not be like those in the parable who ignore the invitation.  Understanding what the Mass truly is, how can we say we are too busy? Sleeping in? Study group? Band practice? Football? How can we possibly think any of these things are more important than what God is offering us?

Let us not be like those who show up without a proper wedding garment. These are the ones who want to come to the party for a free meal and some booze, but don’t really care about what the feast is celebrating. They presume they can just walk in as they are and be fed because they have an invitation. Let us not have such a dismissive attitude toward the wedding feast of the Mass. Let us prepare ourselves spiritually for our nuptial union, through prayer, and as necessary by sacramental Confession. Think about it —  you wouldn’t walk into a wedding (especially your own!) covered in dirt from being out in the world. You’d bathe and put on clean clothes. So we must be cleansed of the dirt of our sins before coming to God’s wedding feast.

Above all, let us discipline ourselves to order our desire for physical pleasure rightly. Let us enjoy the good things of this world God bestows upon us in such a way that causes us to give thanks to the Creator and give glory to His name. Let us enjoy these sensual delights as foretastes of heaven, not as ends in themselves. And let us never, ever settle for anything less than the fullness of joy God wishes to bestow upon us in eternity.