The Exhortation of Jesus Invigorating Spiritual Life
by V.K. McCarty
Look not at the things which are seen, but at those which are not seen;
for the things which are seen may be timely, but the things
which are not seen are for eternity.
(Cyril of Alexandria, Homily 104)
Jesus offering the parable of the great feast awaiting us, as one step in our Orthodox Advent pilgrimage, calls to mind the recovery experience of coming back from the Pandemic, even with our fears about the virus now and in the future. It has been a sweet excitement and relief, even a celebration, beginning to go back to all the different events and places that were closed for so long. Each return—to the theater, to libraries, sports events, to shopping places—has been exhilarating, with a sense of community reunion to it. But we come back somewhat changed, don’t we? In some ways now, it’s easier to just talk about going back to events, rather than to actually get off the couch and go to them, even if safety is no longer the whole reason for isolating ourselves.
It is easy to hedge on actually doing much of anything. It is easy to stall on getting out there, even with things opening again. I hear myself saying: “I said I’d see you there today?” or “Goodness, does it say that zoom event is this afternoon?” I feel like a toddler who’s just learned to play “Don’t See Me.” My friends, it is going to take the grace of God to get our motivation and social disciplines back. The same thing can be said about motivating our spiritual lives. The Gospel is speaking to us today.
This teaching of Jesus may be taking a pointed jab at our Pandemic-ingrained hesitancy to join God’s feast in the world. We make excuses to one another and to ourselves, just like those in the Gospel passage. And yet, our earthly matters are certainly not trivial. It is easy to validate— or invalidate—the reasons given in the biblical story; but, our excuses are good and valid as well. We are swept up in responsible family-making; we are overworked in jobs which support those who depend on us, and our responsibilities can just overwhelm our lives. How tremendously fortunate we are, then—the presence of Jesus Christ son of the living God alongside us is guiding us to pray for the mercy and grace of God that we may prioritize our spiritual lives alongside our earthly lives—for both are precious to God.
We are hearing Jesus tell the story of a great banquet—perhaps a banquet at the end of time. Oh, let the eyes of your heart imagine that banquet Jesus describes!—the full richness of Heaven with Christ at the right hand of God. Nobody is excluded. Everyone is invited. The table is laden, we have only to lay aside our excuses and accept the invitation. This is a clear call for transformation, one of several we receive from the Lord.
Yet, someone who cannot see beyond the comfort of their couch is increasingly missing out on the mysteries of faith that are emerging in our world with every new person who is vaccinated. Even out in the world, I see people across the table, even folks walking toward me on the sidewalk, and they look like they are in bondage to the cell-phone—hooked by the nose and chained down to it, ready to walk right into a lamp-post, the priority of it has become so great. You’ve seen that. Today’s Gospel helps us pray for the mercy and grace of God to prioritize the divine eternal purposes working through our lives, along with texting, heavenly concerns along with earthly ones.
Furthermore, the urgency in God’s open hospitality in the Gospel story, the eager insistence on full inclusion is not judgement from God—it isn’t even negative. The host of the dinner may be angry, but not our Almighty Creator. This is a story about the wide-open invitation of the love of God—but, we are missing out if we don’t go. Especially as the Pandemic wanes—even in fits and starts—gather courage and humility, and get out there spiritually into the world God has created, including the Church.
Following us today, guiding us as we work through this Gospel story is the Church Father, Bishop Cyril of Alexandria. His Luke commentary is lost to us in the Greek; there is no Patralogia Gaeaca volume of it. Nevertheless, we can still hear this masterpiece teaching us— homily by homily—through the fortunate pathway of Syriac Studies. And Bishop Cyril, too, may be exhorting us to get off the couch: “for the fruit of our good works is praiseworthy” (Comm. Upon the Gospel of S. Luke; RP Smith, trans. (Oxford: 1859), Homily 104, v.1, 460-473).
Bishop Cyril is reminding us, as we hear the Banquet Parable of Jesus, that “the Creator of the Universe, the Father of glory, is making a great supper that is a festival for the whole world, in honor of Christ.” So, be encouraged by the Holy Spirit moving within you—as it is this day—and let not our natural malaise, which has been justified these many months by virus safety, let it not now isolate you from your spiritual life in community as part of the Body of Christ.
For “what is the nature of this invitation?” asks our wise Bishop. “Indeed, it says: ‘Come: for lo! All things are ready.’ In this, God the Father has prepared in Christ for all the inhabitants of the earth those gifts which are bestowed upon the earth through Him, even the forgiveness of sins, the cleansing away of all defilement, the communion of the Holy Spirit, our glorious adoption as his children, and the kingdom of heaven.” For all those guests who join in the feast—“even the infirm and halting, they shall become strong and whole in Christ, learn to walk uprightly, and receive the divine light into their mind.”
Yet, “in all people, faith is a voluntary act; by attaining to it of your own free will, you are acceptable unto God, and fully endowed with His gifts…that you may be able to look up unto God, and spring away, as it were, from the hand of Satan.” Therefore, let us be encouraged today. The days are soon accomplished that our Savior is born. “See how the God of all,” Cyril says, “as with a bridle, turns unto Himself, all those who fiercely have departed from Him; for He is good and loving unto all mankind, and he wills that all people should be saved, and come unto the knowledge of truth.”
Christ is soon offering to us the sweet beauty of the Feast of the Nativity, and all the feasts of the Church Year. As He says, the table is laden. Let us all taste of the Banquet which God has prepared for us. All our desires, all our ambitions, all life’s complexities find their true fulfillment in the Incarnation of Christ. As we watch and prepare in these Advent days, let us lay aside all our excuses and accept the festal invitation with an open heart—for truly, the table is laden, and all are invited.
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.