Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the 20th Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Bernard, Doctor of the Church
August 20, 2015
Judges 11:29-39, Ps 40, Mt 22:1-14
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today Jesus in the Gospel gives us another parable about his kingdom. In it we can focus on three things:
- The kingdom is compared to a banquet, to a feast, to a joyous celebration. Is this the way we look at our faith? Jesus in this passage will talk about inviting others, but before we really can do that effectively, we have to be enthusiastic “salesmen” of what we’re inviting them to, we have to recognize we’re passing on an awesome invitation. Pope Francis focused on this in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium when he wrote, “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, [evangelizers] should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. … The Church grows … ‘by attraction.'”
- The second aspect of this Gospel is that Jesus sends out his servants — sends us — to invite everyone. People will sadly make excuses about why they won’t come, but Jesus doesn’t want us to cease asking, going out into the highways and byways, to the street corners, everywhere inviting in everyone. Today we celebrate the feast of St. Bernard and this is something he did, even though he was a Cistercian monk. He traveled preaching people back to the faith, inviting them to think about heaven and the path to heaven. He was incredibly successful because he really believed what he was passing on. As a 19 year old, after his mother died, he began to think about the things that would last, about heaven, and about the blessed life that leads there. Then he started to talk to his brothers and friends. Eventually he convinced 30 of his family members and friends to join him in becoming Cistercians and all 31 of them showed up one day to see Saints Robert, Hugh and Alberic. What a postulant class they had! What a vocation director. When Bernard said to his youngest brother, Blessed Nivard, that he would inherit all of his noble father’s property, so convincing had Bernard been to his other brothers that Nivard replied that he was receiving very little here on earth compared to what the other brothers would be receiving in heaven. And soon he found his way to Citeaux as well. Bernard worked very hard to call sinners back to conversion, whether they were teaching falsely, whether they were believing falsely like many of the Albigensians, whether they were living the lie of sin, and he brought so many to come to the banquet. In the opening prayer of the Mass we turned to God and asked, “O God, who made the Abbot Saint Bernard a man consumed with zeal for your house and a light shining and burning in your Church, grant, through his intercession, that we may be on fire with the same spirit and walk always as children of the light.” May we have a double-portion of his zeal and light as we seek to invite others, beginning with our family members and friends to the banquet.
- Third, Jesus shows us that it is not enough for us merely to respond to the invitation and show up. We have to show up properly dressed. The man who entered the banquet without a wedding garment was thrown out where there was wailing and grinding of teeth. At first glance, it might seem that the King is both crazy and cruel. He commanded his servants to invite everyone to the feast and then he’s picky about what they’re wearing? The truth is that in the ancient world, when kings would invite everyone to the feast, they, knowing that many would be poor and not have proper vesture, would normally send out the royal tailors to make proper clothing for everyone who was invited or in some other way provide the fitting clothing. It would be like a rich man today inviting a bunch of homeless people to a black-tie dinner but then giving them free hotel rooms to shower and providing free tuxedos, shoes and gowns to wear. With this history, it’s not difficult to recognize why the king would be so upset about seeing this improperly attired man: this man deliberated refused to wear the clothing that was required and made available. The lesson for all of us is that it’s not enough just to show up. We, too, have to be properly dressed for the feast. But we have to ask: What clothing has been provided for us? What does God want us wearing? What apparel is fit for this banquet? St. Paul describes the proper vesture in two of his epistles. In his Letter to the Colossians, he described, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. … Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:12-14). In the Letter to the Ephesians, he talks about our clothes as a spiritual armor: “Therefore put on the whole armor of God: … fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:11-17). It’s easy to get the picture: the wedding garments God wants us to don are weaved with acts of faith, love, hope, kindness, compassion, humility, patience, meekness, truth, holiness. To make the image even simpler, more concrete, and more specific, God wants us to show up with the garment he himself gave us when we became his adopted children. As we were vested with our baptismal garment, the baptizing priest or deacon said to us, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” Christ himself is meant to be our garment! We are to be clothed in him, in his risen life. As long as we live in him, vest ourselves in his virtues, then we will always be ready and unstained for eternal life. To talk about arriving properly dressed means we’re adorned in our baptismal graces, we’re living the life with Christ that flows from our baptism, we’re living a moral and holy life, rejecting Satan, his empty promises and evil works and living by faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in communion with the saints in the Catholic Church. To be properly dressed spiritually is so important today. The Church is not only “Here comes everybody!” in which all people are invited, but the Church also seeks to remind everyone of the need spiritually to dress appropriately, to “put on” and adorn ourselves with Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14). In practical terms, it means that everyone is both welcome and called to be cleansed, summoned to look at their clothing and see if their soul still sparkles with the brilliance of their white baptismal garment. Many are invited but not everyone chooses take advantage of the Lord’s help through his Church to change their vesture. In the Book of Revelation, there’s an image of what it takes to get to the banquet of the kingdom of heaven. It’s an image of the saints, a “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.’” St. John is told, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-14). The way God cleanses our garments and makes them white is through Jesus’ blood, which is, paradoxically, the most powerful bleach ever known. But we need to be humble to let him do it, and it’s in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that Jesus wants to bathe us in that cleansing detergent that can wipe out even the darkest stains of sin. That’s what we need to do to clean the garment of our soul so that we are always ready for the feast. This is the call to conversion and holiness that St. Bernard never ceased preaching, that the Church has never ceased preaching.
- Once we begin to respond to the Lord’s call to enter into communion with him, to live a holy life like the saint we celebrate today, the ordinary things of life, even the good things, take on a different meaning. We begin to prioritize the things of heaven and look to convert everything on earth into an occasion to enter more fully into the kingdom.
- This perspective is important to help us to understand today’s somewhat disturbing first reading. Jephthah made a vow, a stupid vow, that should the Lord help him prevail against the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first person exiting his house when he returned in triumph. He was trying to convey that he would sacrifice what was dear to him, but he likely imagined he would be sacrificing — killing — one of his servants. When his only child, his beloved daughter exited, he rent his garments, symbolic that his heart was being ripped asunder. But he believed that he had no choice because of his vow. The Lord would later say that he wanted mercy rather than the sacrifice of bulls, and we could certainly say he wanted mercy more than the sacrifice of human beings, as if making one’s daughter a burnt offering — burning her to death or burning her body after slitting her throat — could ever be pleasing to God. But it is a lesson about the importance of making bad vows. (One of the great joys of being a priest is the ability, by the power of the keys, in the confessional of releasing or commuting imprudent, immoral or impossible private vows). The fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their document on Sacred Scripture, Dei Verbum, that the Old Testament stories, “though they also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show us true divine pedagogy” (15). God’s teaching us gradually his ways, which would all be fulfilled when another child would be sacrificed not in thanksgiving for a victory but in order to obtain one that would last forever.
- But Jephthah’s imprudent vow is not what I want to ponder as an illustration of how things change once we begin to prioritize the things of heaven. It’s his daughter’s reaction. After expressing — we can say beautifully — her love for her father and for his vow even more than for her own life, she begged for two months to go to the top of a mountain with the other women her age who likely would have been members of her eventual bridal party in order to “bewail her virginity.” It wasn’t really to mourn over the fact that she would not have sexual activity, because that easily could have been changed: her father could have quickly arranged a marriage for her before he would burn her body supposedly to please God. She was mourning the fact that she would never experience the joy of conceiving, bearing and raising a child. She would never realize the full maternal nature of her being. She would never fulfill the commandment to increase and multiply God had given us at the beginning of time. And she mourned. Marriage, fertility, children were considered great blessings, and she mourned that she would never taste them.
- Marriage, fertility and family are still great blessings and it’s normal on a human level that the loss of them in sacrifice would be mourned. But as we look toward heaven, we are looking toward a marriage banquet in which we’re not fundamentally guests at someone else’s happiness while we go without, but toward the consummation of our spousal union with God himself by his own will fore-announced in the prophets Isaiah and Hosea and fulfilled when Jesus the Bridegroom came. It is this that changes our natural mourning into supernatural joy, for blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. In the kingdom Christ invites us to participate here on earth, when people give up families of their own for the sake of the Gospel — as we heard earlier this week in response to Peter’s question — we receive 100-fold and eternal life. That’s what’s involved in virginity and chaste celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. There is some mourning involved, but there’s also much joy. About the mourning I remember one female spiritual directee who was entering the early phases of menopause and experiencing all of the associated hormones and emotions saying that Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac was nothing compared to what she was mourning, that she had sacrificed her first child, her second, her tenth and all the children she would have loved to have according to the flesh, but when I asked her whether those great gifts were worth obtaining the pearl of great price, obtaining an ever greater union with Christ as the Bridegroom, without hesitation she said yes. And we began to talk about all the fruits that she has received from her chaste mystical sponsality and spiritual maternity. Rather than a foolish vow like Jephthah’s, the vow of chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is something that is indeed very pleasing to the Lord and he gives us the grace to make it when he gives us the vocation to be religious and priests. That’s one of the things St. Bernard writes about so beautifully and powerfully in his great commentary on the Song of Songs. Yes, there is mourning involved, but rather than bewailing our virginity, we give our sexuality, we give our love, we give our bodies and souls to the Lord in sacrifice not by burning them on an altar, but by placing them lovingly on the marriage bed where our loving union with Christ is consummated as we become one flesh with him.
- I finish with a story from St. Bernard’s life. As he was preaching in Languedoc, at Sarlat in Perigord, trying to bring those who had gone over to heresies back into the faith, he blessed some loaves of bread, saying, “By this you shall know the truth of our doctrine and the falsehood of that which is taught by the heretics, if such as are sick among you recover their health by eating of these loaves.” The bishop of Chartres thought that he was speaking imprudently and said, “If they eat with a right faith, they shall be cured,” but Bernard replied, “No. Assuredly they that taste shall be cured that you may now by this that we are sent by authority derived from God and preach his truth.” And many ate the bread and all those who were sick were cured. I think that that miracle is an image of what happens in the Holy Eucharist. St. Ignatius of Antioch called it the “medicine of immortality.” When we consume the Eucharist, we come into contact with the same Jesus whose hem alone cured the woman with the twelve year hemorrhage. This is the open secret of the source of St. Bernard’s strength, the way he was able to preach indefatigably against so much opposition. This was the root of his own happy chaste celibacy. This was the foretaste here on earth of the eternal wedding banquet to which he invited so many hundreds of thousands. This is the mountain we ascend not to mourn what we give up but to celebrate what we receive. As we do, let us ask the Lord to help us interiorly get properly dressed through the renewal of the graces of our baptism so that we can consume together in holiness the food of the kingdom!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Jgs 11:29-39a
He passed through Gilead and Manasseh,
and through Mizpah-Gilead as well,
and from there he went on to the Ammonites.
Jephthah made a vow to the LORD.
“If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,” he said,
“whoever comes out of the doors of my house
to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites
shall belong to the LORD.
I shall offer him up as a burnt offering.”
and the LORD delivered them into his power,
so that he inflicted a severe defeat on them,
from Aroer to the approach of Minnith (twenty cities in all)
and as far as Abel-keramim.
Thus were the Ammonites brought into subjection
by the children of Israel.
When Jephthah returned to his house in Mizpah,
it was his daughter who came forth,
playing the tambourines and dancing.
She was an only child: he had neither son nor daughter besides her.
When he saw her, he rent his garments and said,
“Alas, daughter, you have struck me down
and brought calamity upon me.
For I have made a vow to the LORD and I cannot retract.”
She replied, “Father, you have made a vow to the LORD.
Do with me as you have vowed,
because the LORD has wrought vengeance for you
on your enemies the Ammonites.”
Then she said to her father, “Let me have this favor.
Spare me for two months, that I may go off down the mountains
to mourn my virginity with my companions.”
“Go,” he replied, and sent her away for two months.
So she departed with her companions
and mourned her virginity on the mountains.
At the end of the two months she returned to her father,
who did to her as he had vowed.
Responsorial Psalm PS 40:5, 7-8a, 8b-9, 10
Blessed the man who makes the LORD his trust;
who turns not to idolatry
or to those who stray after falsehood.
R. Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
Sacrifice or oblation you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.”
R. Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
“In the written scroll it is prescribed for me.
To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!”
R. Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
I announced your justice in the vast assembly;
I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.
R. Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
Alleluia Ps 95:8
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
If today you hear his voice,
harden not your hearts.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel Mt 22:1-14
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.
A second time he sent other servants, saying,
‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Then the king said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to meet the guests
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen.”