Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
There’s a reason Jesus gave his first sign at the Marriage Feast at Cana. His teaching is, in fact, suffused with nuptial imagery. He calls himself the Bridegroom. He tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet. And where did he get this sort of thinking from? Well, given that he was homeschooled and taught to read the Scriptures by St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, we shouldn’t be too surprised that he and his Mother are pretty much on the same wavelength at the Wedding at Cana. She is asking himself to reveal himself as the Messiah and he knows it (otherwise, his “my hour has not yet come” reply makes absolutely no sense). She is exactly the importunate supplicant that Jesus tells us he is looking for. She persists… and he works the sign—a sign that points forward to the Eucharist banquet and ultimately to Heaven.
If you don’t get the point, John is happy to drive it home for you. Just turn the page on his gospel and you find John the Baptist telling us who the Bridegroom is:
He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. (John 3:29)
This is not John playing at some pseudo-Dan Brown game and hinting that Jesus was the guy getting married in the previous chapter. It is rather the commentary on the meaning, not only of the wedding at Cana, but of every wedding (and especially every wedding between baptized Christians): namely, that our earthly experience of marriage points us to the True Marriage between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church. That’s why Paul will write:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
And it is why John will, in his Revelation, tell us:
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)
Jesus had learned well from his home-schooling mother and father that Isaiah had declared the word of the Lord:
For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:5-8)
And so it was only natural for Christ to offer a sign which linked the the Eucharist to a wedding banquet. That’s why the Church speaks of it as “the Paschal Banquet.” For the Host is the Host. And He is so profligate in His affections that He throws the door wide to everybody, especially to those who cannot repay Him (i.e., every last one of us). That why he tells us,
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. (Luke 14:12)
We easily forget this and can fall prey to the game of “Squint at the People Down the Pew” in the effort to see if they are being as reverent as we are. It is good to be reverent, of course. But the moment we turn our reverence into a bargaining chip at the Banquet (“I thank you O Lord that I am not like other people or even like that guy over there who wears tacky clothes, or didn’t receive the Cup…”) is the moment we have taken our minds off God and begun to present our superior wonderfulness to Him rather than welcome those who do not repay us by conforming to what we think they should be doing. Does this mean we should encourage irreverent Masses? Of course not. But it does mean that we should encourage charity even when people don’t measure up to our standards. If the Host welcomes them, so should we.
One of the consequences of the fact that the Eucharist is a wedding banquet is, as the old saying goes, “You can pick your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives”. The communion of Peter the Rock is a gigantic rock polisher. We all tumble around in it, buffing the edges off one another until we become smooth. We go to Mass with all sorts of people who cannot (or will not) give us payment on our demands that they conform to our notion of how a good Catholic ought to look, sound and smell. And so we grow in charity even as others grow in charity over our equally irritating traits. And so, as we rub shoulders at the Wedding Banquet with the odd relatives of the Bride and Groom, we learn the reality that the good news about the Catholic Church is that it’s like a big family—and the bad news about the Catholic Church is that it’s like a big family.
If our earthly perspective were all we had to go on, that could be grim tidings indeed, depending on our experience of family. But our earthly perspective is not all we have to go on. That why Paul tells us:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes in glory. That means that we participate in his death and resurrection and that this participation is moving forward toward consummation on That Day when he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We aren’t just spinning our wheels here, playing out an endless round of dumb family quarrels, habits of sin, and the same old same old.
Rather, the Eucharist is the Pledge of the Glory to Come because it is the glory to come. The Eucharist is Jesus. What we shall receive in Heaven will be full participation, not in something utterly different, but in the very same Jesus we receive in the Eucharist. To be sure, in one sense, everything will be different. Like the Risen Christ, the whole universe will be transfigured and we might not recognize the old girl at first. But when our eyes adjust to the light and we look again we will recognize that this place is Home, the place we’ve been looking for all our lives. And we will recognize that it has been among us, even on earth, because the same Jesus we know in the Eucharist is the Jesus who will welcome us to the Great and Ultimate Marriage Banquet at which He presides and offers Himself to us all.
That’s why the charity we are slowly learning to show to our exasperating brother in Christ matters. Because as C.S. Lewis says:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.