the wedding garment

(fr. Cyprian, on Mt 22:1-14; 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Luke tells this story of the guests who refused the invitation to the banquet in his gospel too, but in a slightly different version.[i] Scholars think that his is actually the older version of it, closer to the original. In Luke it’s just a man giving a dinner, but Matthew has made it into a king hosting a wedding banquet, which of course is a very evocative image both for the covenant with Israel and the Eucharist. Luke also has more focus on the poor in his version, the blind and the lame who are invited; whereas Matthew is more polemical, as he often is, against his Jewish brothers and sisters, since he’s writing after the fall of Jerusalem; that may be the allusion to the king destroying the murderers and burning their city.

But the real jarring part of the story that Matthew adds––besides the king going out and killing everyone and burning down there city!––is this guy who gets caught without his wedding garment. (If ever there were a short story worthy of Flannery O’Connor!) It seems rather arbitrary; he just got rushed in from off the street! Did everyone else have time to go home and change into their party clothes? There’s no indication that anyone was given any warning that they had to wear a wedding garment. And why is this king prowling around checking out the guests rather than doting on his newlywed son and his bride? Even more important, what is this wedding garment?! It’s like the one thing necessary that Mary had chosen, the better part, sitting at the feet of Jesus.[ii] What is it? What is the wedding garment? I sure don’t want to be caught without it! But we ought to start asking ourselves, no matter how old or young we are, whatever our station in life is: what is this wedding garment, and am I wearing it?! Have I got one?

I know it sounds too facile, too easy to say it this way, but it has just simply got to be love, doesn’t it? That was certainly Saint Augustine’s interpretation of this parable. This guy in the story didn’t have his wedding garment on––he had no love––and so he got kicked right out of there, like the virgins who had no oil in their lamps.[iii] I was thinking of variations on Paul’s great hymn to love in the Letter to the Corinthians, which we heard just the other day, about the love without which I am just a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal. I could sit in full lotus position and train my senses and still my mind and hold my breath ‘til I’m 84, but if I’m not wearing the wedding garment––if I don’t have love––I’m nothing. I could do all the right monk things, have my habit perfect, do lectio divina, know all about monastic history and sing Gregorian chant to perfection with the Solesmes interpretation, but if am not wearing the wedding garment––if it doesn’t lead me to love––it’s a total waste of time… and I’m nothing. If there is no agape then it’s not really apatheia. And this love––it’s not just “being nice,” because certainly the father, the host of this banquet, isn’t nice. He has people killed and he sort of arbitrarily kicks people out into the darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. No, this is a tough love, a demanding love, a crucifying love, and that applies to love of God, love of neighbor as well as love of self, but it’s the jealous love of God, long-suffering love of our neighbor, and tough love even of self, as Augustine says, the love that comes from a “pure heart, a clean conscience and genuine faith.”[iv] That’s setting the bar pretty high!

Now we can look back at that amazing reading from the prophet Isaiah.[v] This is one of the most beautiful images in all of scripture of Jerusalem as the place of the fulfillment of the covenant, a glimpse of the vision that God has for the whole world, that Jerusalem and Mount Zion will be the place for all people to gather for the great banquet of juicy, rich food and choice, pure wine, because the covenant established with Israel was meant for the whole world, not just for one people, one land, one ethnic group. And if we want to know what this love looks like, this is it! This is the society that the followers of Jesus are supposed to inaugurate, a whole new way of being in the world. This is what the followers of Jesus are meant to become, are meant to be, are meant to build––the new Jerusalem, the place where, as Isaiah says in chapter 56, anyone from any nation who will call the name of God can come, ‘and I will make them joyful when they pray, and my house shall be a house of prayer for everyone who calls,’ where all the lost shall be gathered. That’s what church is supposed to be and that’s what we monks are doing here too: we’re building a new Jerusalem, a new way to live on the earth in accord with the dictates of the Gospel. This is the mandate of every Christian community and the mandate to every individual human person, to become that mountain, to be that place, for each other, for the world. And if we’re not doing that then we’re not wearing the wedding garment. It hasn’t yet happened in Jerusalem, and it hasn’t happened yet in Christianity either, but we really have to ask ourselves if it happens here: does it happen wherever I am?

One of the big revolutions of course of the Jewish tradition that Jesus brings is the beginning of the fulfillment of this prophecy, meaning that now everyone is invited to the wedding feast. Again Luke, because of his love for the marginalized, makes it even more explicit in his version of this parable: bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. That’s what this love is like, this wedding garment: some kind of radical inclusivity in which no one gets left out. Matthew has the king say, ‘Bring in anyone you come upon!’ which reminds me of how James Joyce defined the church: “Here comes everybody!” Our religious belonging so easily becomes a kind of a country club for elites, for the stainless, only for those who can parrot the right answers, only those who can act in the right way, or only for the gnostics, the temptation in our supposed “New Age.” And yet it was only two weeks ago that we heard Jesus say that ‘the tax collectors and prostitutes are getting in ahead of you.’[vi] They got it; they were wearing the wedding garment. Like the penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s Gospel, whose many sins were forgiven.[vii] Why? Because she loved much! She was wearing the wedding garment.

I just got back from a General Assembly in Italy with our monks from all over the world at which we focused a lot on formation and vocations, and so I was thinking of this gospel in terms of vocations too. I’ve heard it said that some of the crisis in the episcopacy in the last couple of decades (mind you, I heard this from a bishop) was due to the fact that so many of the good guys, talented, intelligent guys, left, and this bishop said to me, “And the church was left with us! We’ve done our best.” I remember hearing something similar from the famous Jesuit activist and firebrand Daniel Berrigan. His brother Philip was also an activist, but he left the priesthood and got married. I met Dan in Milwaukee, not long after his brother had died, and I told him what an inspiration he was to me when I was a young man, and he looked very sad and said to me, “You should have met Phil. He was the real thing. I’m only a reasonable facsimile.” I was thinking too about all the men who have come and gone from our ranks here at New Camaldoli. My own class was five, and at least two of them were so much more knowledgeable about monasticism than I, not to mention the countless others before them who seemed to be the great hope of New Camaldoli, and yet, here am I, here are we. That’s not to put them down at all, but it makes me think of the line from 1st Corinthians: he has chosen the lowly who are small in this world.[viii] Luckily God went out and swept the streets and filled New Camaldoli with us, the poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame, the tax collectors and prostitutes. Now, that doesn’t let me off the hook, or let us off the hook. Saint Benedict says that the salient feature of whether or not someone is truly called to monastic life is that they are really seeking God. But then there are conditions to that truly seeking God; there’s a wedding garment, you might say: love for the prayer of the church, the opus Dei; obedience, which he spells out later as mutual obedience; and then that strange Latin word obprobria, which is usually translated as “trials,” but more and more scholars like to translate as “humble” or even “humiliating work.” Benedict was writing at a time when men from Roman patrician families might not want to slop the cows or work the land, let alone wash their brothers’ feet. Many are called––seeking God––but few are chosen––willing to totally commit their lives to this way of prayer, obedience and humble service––all of which are expressions of our love and ways to that love. But Benedict says that after climbing all these steps of humility we will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out all fear. And through this love, St. Benedict says, what we once performed with dread, we will now begin to observe without effort … out of love for Christ. See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life?[ix] But we’ve gotta wear the wedding garment. We still have to have the same grateful love that the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes had; we still have to have the rapt loving attention for Jesus that Mary had and the love that the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet had, so that our many sins are forgiven. We still gotta gather around the banquet table, the wedding feast of the Lamb, and make sure that the doors stay open and that all are invited in too, the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. We still gotta make sure we are wearing our wedding garment, otherwise we might find ourselves being tossed out in the darkness on that final day, not really being excluded from the banquet as much as having excluded ourselves by not having the one thing necessary, having no oil in our lamps, by not wearing the wedding garment, by not living in love, the tough love, the perfect love that casts out all fear, the crucified love of Christ our Lord who calls us now to the wedding banquet of the Lamb.


[i] Lk 14:16ff.

[ii] Lk 10:38.

[iii] Mt 25:1.

[iv] 1 Tm 1:5.

[v] Is 25:6-10a.

[vi] Mt 21:31.

[vii] Lk 7, see also Mt 26:6ff.

[viii] 1 Cor 1:27.

[ix] RB 7:67-68 (1 Jn 4:18); Pro 20.

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