The Blessing of Dining in the Kingdom, Catholic Online Year of Faith Homily Series, November 5, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Year of Faith Homily Series
November 5, 2013

I had the joy for many years of being a guide to the necropolis that the emperor Constantine had buried under ground in order to build over the tomb of St. Peter in the Vatican the basilica that now bears his name.  The necropolis houses not only the tomb and bones of the rock on whom Jesus built his Church and many pagan mausolea and sarcophagi, but also several Christian epitaphs and tombs.

In one tiny mausoleum owned by the Iulii family, we find some of the earliest Christian mosaics in the world. On the vault, there is a mosaic of Christ in his heavenly triumph, and on two of the side walls, Christ is depicted as the Good Shepherd and the fulfillment of the story of Jonah, all somewhat classic themes in paleochristian art. On a third wall, however, there is a mosaic of a fisherman with one line going out that toward the end splits into two. On one of the hooks, a fish is caught; from the other, a fish is swimming away.

The image is meant to symbolize the proclamation of the Gospel. Christ had appointed Peter and the others to be fishers of men, who themselves called, ordained and sent out other fishers of men, all the way down to the date of the mausoleum and beyond. The “bait” is always the same, Christ himself, whom we actually consume in the Holy Eucharist. But the reality is that some take the bait and enter into Peter’s boat that symbolizes the Church and others reject it and swim away.

The image was placed in the Iulii family tomb likely out of Christian hope that they had taken the bait, become Christian and in turn fishers of other Christians.

The truth, remains, however that some do accept Christ and the invitation to enter his kingdom, and some do not.

During this Year of Faith, we first give God thanks that someone in our life — our parents, grandparents, spouse, Catholic school teachers, college friend, or even someone we never met personally whose example had a big impact on us — was a “fisherman” God used in order to reel us in to his family.

We also rejoice that he trusts us so much that he has thereby sent us out with the same “bait” as the first Christians to fish for others, knowing that many will accept the invitation, but some will not.

Today’s Gospel is all about our mission as fishers of men and women, boys and girls, friends and family, coworkers and fellow students, neighbors and strangers.

The image Jesus employs is that of a banquet, which points not only to the eternal wedding banquet of heaven but also to the foretaste of that celebration here on earth in the Mass.

Jesus used the image during a dinner, when someone present exclaimed “Blessed is the one who will dine in the Kingdom of God.” Jesus wanted all those present to know that we while we are all invited, many of those on the presumed “A-list” won’t be present because they’re not willing to change and prioritize the banquet over other aspects of their life.

He describes a banquet in which a man invited many, but once the banquet was prepared and the servants sent out to tell people to come to the banquet hall, those invited began to excuse themselves for reasons of work or family. The man was angry that after he had done all the work people were blowing the invitation off, as if examining a field, or evaluating oxen or even some of the joys of being a newlywed couldn’t wait.

Some people don’t accept the greatest invitation ever, or as Jesus says at the end of the parable, those who are invited don’t end up tasting the dinner. They don’t grasp how blessed it is to dine in the Kingdom of God.

But others do. The man throwing the banquet sent out his servants to bring in the poor, crippled, the blind and lame, and then sent them out again to the highways and hedgerows to invite yet others so that his hall would be filled.

This lesson about the proclamation of the Gospel is key for us to grasp as we head toward the finish line of the Year of Faith. This ecclesiastical holy year was called by Pope Benedict to increase our faith so that, having been more deeply evangelized, we ourselves could more apostolically carry out the mission that is the New Evangelization.

The New Evangelization is the effort to re-propose the Gospel to those who have in some degree heard the Christian message but have distanced themselves from the Christian life. We’re sent out to invite them anew to the banquet God the Father is throwing for his Son here on earth and in heaven. He wants his banquet hall to be filled.

Sometimes those who have already had seats reserved at the banquet through baptism unfortunately put other things ahead of actually attending and tasting the dinner God has prepared, his own Son. These are not “bad people,” but people with misaligned priorities. Many of those who have stopped frequenting God’s weekly banquet attest in surveys not that they rejected the Church but simply “drifted away.” They’ve wandered precisely because they have put other things ahead of attending the Last Supper and the foretaste of the eternal wedding banquet. We pray for them. We sacrifice for them. We continue to invite them.

But the rejection of the invitation on the part of those initially invited also spurs the Church to take more seriously those who might not otherwise get the priority they deserve. God sends us, his servants, out to invite the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. In short, he sends us out to those the word so often easily forgets. In Pope Francis’ homily at his inaugural Mass as Pope, he said, he said that God calls us to have a special care for “those in need, who are often the last we think about, … especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.” And he has made it a priority for the entire Church to go out to the outskirts and seek to integrate those whom the invitation often doesn’t reach and seek to bring them into communion.

And the parable shows us that even after we have brought in many that God wants to send us out once more into the highways and hedgerows, to find everyone and invite everyone to the banquet. He wants to feed and nourish everyone and each one. Like a Good Shepherd, he wants us to risk our lives to go onto cliffs and ledges in search of the lost sheep. That’s the way we become in fact his “good and faithful servants.”

But how do we make the invitation? Many Catholics routinely invite fallen-away family members to come with them to Mass, especially on major feasts like Christmas and Easter, only to get polite or impolite rejections. An invitation always involves words, but the most powerful invitations are made through body language, witness and tone.

To return to the parable, we can imagine two different ways that the servants could invite. One would be, “The dinner is ready. We all have to go. If you don’t come, the One throwing the banquet will be angry and you will suffer the consequences.”

Another would be, “The banquet is ready. It’s so exciting. I can’t believe how generous the One throwing the banquet is. He’s inviting us — the poor, blind, lame, crippled, those who never get these types of invitations — to the greatest meal ever. He himself is going to eat with us! He tells us that we can bring all our needs to him and ask him and he’ll respond. I can’t wait! Can we go together and sit together?”

The first is the way many invitations are made to get people to return to Church. They rely heavily on guilt of one form or another and often the threat of hell. The message of the messenger is often that we go out of duty rather than love.

The second is a way far more effective, where the incredible privilege of the invitation, the true nature of the banquet, and the joy of the messenger transformed by the relationship with the One throwing the banquet are the principal things communicated.

The life of the messenger often becomes the invitation. When someone returns from the banquet absolutely aflame with love, radiating joy, serving, praising and forgiving others, people can’t help notice. Some may still make excuses out of false priorities as to why they shouldn’t come, but they nevertheless feel a certain attraction. When the invitation comes from a dour member of the “frozen chosen,” however, few will readily respond to something that they think will make them miserable, too. We add to their list of excuses!

The type of transformation that is meant to take place to make us compelling personal invitations St. Paul describes in today’s first reading. He calls us to be sincere, to love the good, to treat each another with affection, to show honor, to be full of zeal and fervent in spirit, to be joyful, hopeful, persevering in prayer, weathering afflictions, generous to the poor, forgiving of persecutors, compassionate, humble, and concerned about the lowly. Every time we come to the banquet, our friendship with the Banqueteer — who is all of these things and more — gradually helps us to assume all of these traits. And once we do, our invitations take on new meaning. People want to spend time with those who are like this — and we can become a fishing hook to real them in to receive the same “Bait” that has changed our life forever.

At the beginning of the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans today, the apostle describes the division of labor in the one Body of Christ, stressing that we all have been special gifts by God and have an important part to play in building up the Church. No matter what our particular task is, we’re all called as servants of the Banqueteer, to go out into the peripheries, to the high ways and byways, to invite everyone to come to share with us the joy that comes to us from God. Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.

We are blessed because we’ve responded to that invitation. How much more blessed we will be if together with God we can help those who know and meet respond to that invitation, too!