Holy Communion and the Wedding Garment of Grace

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of Italian Baroque painter Bernardo Strozzi

Bernardo Strozzi, “Parable of the Invitation to the Wedding,” 1636
Bernardo Strozzi, “Parable of the Invitation to the Wedding,” 1636 (photo: Picasa / Public Domain)

This Sunday’s Gospel comes in short (Matthew 22:1-10) and long (Matthew 22:1-14) versions. I urge clergy to exert themselves and read reading four extra verses, because they address a too-neglected topic. They will, in fact, be the focus of this essay.

Today we read another parable, this one about a wedding feast a king prepares for his son. When all the arrangements are made, he dispatches servants to escort the invited, “but they refused to come.” A second effort is met with both indifference and vehemence — “some ignored the invitation and went away” but others “laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” Just as last week, after the wicked tenant farmers kill the owner’s son-heir outside the vineyard, so these wicked guests, too, are “destroyed,” their city “burned.” 

Having a banquet surplus but a deficit of guests, the king then literally has his servants beat the bushes, “invit[ing] to the feast whomever [they] … find” so that the reception hall is “filled” with “bad and good alike.”

There ends the short form of the Gospel. Let’s keep reading.

Once the banquet is underway, the king comes to meet his guests. As he makes his way around the hall, “he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.” He stops and asks the man why he came inappropriately attired to a royal wedding feast. “But he was reduced to silence,” i.e., he had nothing to say for himself. So, the king orders him cast out, bound hand and foot, “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

The short form of the Gospel reinforces the same message we’ve met in the past few weeks: the dereliction by Israel’s politico-religious establishment of its duties towards God. Jesus spoke of that establishment in terms of the obsequious son who fails to keep his word and the wicked tenant farmers who seek to expropriate the owner’s vineyard for himself. This week, the establishment is the invited guests who have better things to do than attend the royal wedding of their king’s son. They’re either indifferent or downright hostile. 

That hostility shouldn’t surprise us. Both the philosopher Max Scheler and the pre-papal Karol Wojtyła speak of a phenomenon called “ressentiment.” Explained very simplistically, it’s the inversion in values that comes when we embrace values that are not true, values that are evil. We are hardwired for the good, which means that when we consciously persist in doing evil, we eventually have to talk ourselves into evil is good and good is evil. “God really doesn’t think that’s bad!” “That’s really good.” “Yes, the Church says that’s intrinsically evil, but it’s really loving, and the Church will one day realize that!” We cannot persist in a contradiction: embracing evil eventually makes us try to relabel it as good. That’s ressentiment. And we see that in the maltreatment the invited guests (or last week’s evil tenants, who only see value in appropriating the vineyard) dole out to the father/owner/king’s representatives. It’s not just a lack of respect for whom they abuse. It’s a “how dare” your expectations interfere with my priorities.

Because the invited guests proved “unworthy,” the king expands the invitee pool. He has, after all, killed the fatted calf (just like another father did for a son once upon a time — Luke 15:22-24) and dinner won’t keep!

In the long form, the king then meets his banqueteers and comes upon an ill-clad guest. Perhaps our modern age has grown so casual (or slovenly) in attire that it thinks it does others a favor (the king at the banquet, God in his house) just by being there. Today’s Gospel makes clear: that’s not enough. As Jesus reminds us elsewhere in the Gospel: “We are useless servants; we have only done what we should do” (Luke 17:10).

We’re not talking about appropriate physical dress for Mass (though that’s important). In the Church’s tradition, today’s wedding feast Gospel was often seen as an analogy to the Eucharist, the “bread of heaven,” a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. In his antiphon for Corpus Christi, St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the Blessed Sacrament as “O Sacred Banquet, where Christ becomes our food! The memorial of his passion is renewed, our soul is filled with grace, and we receive a pledge of the glory to come!” 

The lack of a proper wedding garment was understood as the lack of sanctifying grace, an irreverent or even unworthy reception of the Eucharist. 

The Most Holy Eucharist, truly the Body and Blood of Christ, joins us most intimately to Jesus, who is Love. Receiving Communion when one is not in a state of grace is utterly incompatible with that act.

If, once upon a time, some people may have been scrupulous about whether they were “worthy” to receive Communion even after having gone to confession, the pendulum has swung radically in the other direction. Today’s pastoral problem is frequent Communion and infrequent confession — lengthy lines for Communion, none to the confessional.

There is something grossly imbalanced in that picture. The Eucharist is intended to help us grow in charity. But we cannot deny that sin remains a part of our lives and sin is the one thing incompatible with charity. Mortal sin destroys charity, but every sin — including every venial sin — weakens it. Even venial sin is like so much spiritual cholesterol: eventually, its buildup can block the flow of life-giving charity.

Yes, the Eucharist is our “medicine,” but it is not the sacrament of conversion and healing. Christ instituted another and distinct sacrament for that purpose: Penance. Those who are conscious of mortal sin must first be reconciled with God through confession before receiving Communion, because they lack the appropriate wedding garment of grace.

I urge the reading of the longer form Gospel today because I believe this is a pastoral issue that needs addressing. Too many Catholics have unclear ideas about how Penance and the Eucharist fit together in the rhythm of a Christian life that frequent Communion should indicate. 

Before the revision of the Lectionary (the readings for Mass) c. 1969, today’s long-form Gospel — the man without the wedding garment — was read annually on the Sundays after Pentecost. It now recedes to appearing once every three years (and, if the short form is selected, disappears). St. Paul’s clear teaching about the wrongness of unworthy reception of Communion (1 Corinthians 11:27-32) has also been practically erased from being read at Mass: it shows up on a weekday Mass in late summer every other year. (In view of the contemporary pastoral situation and the view that Judas received sacrilegiously at the Last Supper, I suggest the Holy See could make it a long form to the Second Reading of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which already features vv. 23-26.)

Today’s Gospel of the Unworthy Guest is depicted in art by Italian Baroque painter Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1581-1644). From Genoa, he was a priest and member of the Capuchin order. “Il Cappuccino” was allowed to ply his artistic trade after his father died to support his mother (Capuchins are vowed to poverty), but after she passed away “il Prete Genovese” (the priest from Genoa) apparently did not make his way back to his order. He lived in the same era as and was influenced by Peter Paul Rubens. The painting is held in Genoa.

Mind you, this is a flat oil painting. This kind of window-shaped appearance with a foot seemingly on a ledge was common in Baroque paintings of this period, attempting to introduce a three-dimensionality to works, especially when placed atop a domed ceiling. The sheer size and physicality of the figures in proportion to the overall work is characteristic of the Baroque.

The king sits on the right at a banquet table, a pitcher of wine next to him (sacramental allusions?), a royal scepter in his right hand while he dispatches the guest without a wedding garment with his left. That guest stands front and center, even as three guards bind him: one behind, tying his hands; one at his knee, binding his feet; a third holding him from behind. Behind them is another banquet table, with surprised guests looking at the scene, the guest on the right looking towards the king and sneering at the man. We’re brought into the scene by the red server boy with a tray of choice meat (roast veal?) on the left, whose downward gaze seemingly captures ours, as if we are looking upward. The guard binding the man’s feet already has a foot on the ledge below, the below darkness into which the man will be presumably cast. That darkness alludes to hell, where those who lack the garment of charity end, given the reference to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Luke 13:28, which also alludes to judgmental exclusion from a wedding banquet). Is the dog there just for illustration or as an allusion to Luke’s parable of Lazarus at the rich man’s door who, in his physical poverty (a parallel to this man’s spiritual poverty), had his sores licked by dogs (Luke 16:19-31)? In Luke’s parable, however, it’s Lazarus who finds relief in “Abraham’s bosom” while the indifferent rich man weeps and gnashes his teeth.

The Church today affords clergy an opportunity to address the question of how we practice Eucharistic coherence — which affects everybody — on a pastoral parish level. As we journey toward next year’s culmination of the U.S. Bishops’ Eucharistic renewal effort, let’s use the long-form Gospel to do that.