Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Poured out ... For Many

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Changes, especially when it affects us personally, are often difficult to accept. My entry into this parish coincided with a big change in the new translation of text of the Mass, largely affecting the English speaking world. I know personally of many priests who grumbled at the archaic sounding, long and clumsy sentences, often with hardly a punctuation to help us catch our breath, and others who eulogised the introduction of a new translation that was profoundly more theological and closer to the original Latin. The debate continues with bated breath, some resisting, some delaying, whilst others in open rebellion, simply refusing to use the new text. A significant change is the words of Christ in the institution narrative, while the Chalice is being lifted, from the former “shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven,” to the present “poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The most noticeable revision in these lines is the replacement of "for all" with "for many." It raises the controversial and troubling question, “Does that mean that the Church is saying that Christ did not die for all?” Certainly, this is not the intention of the Church, and certainly she has no desire to change scriptures, especially the belief that Christ is “the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:2). But perhaps, the real reason is not a matter of translation or semantics, but rather one of having one of our most popular beliefs exposed as a myth at best, and a lie at worst. Without a doubt, the new translation shakes the widespread belief, which is not confined to uncatechised laity but also of clerics and religious too, that salvation is virtually assured to all men and women, regardless of their religious faith. In other words, hell doesn’t exist, and “all” (and I would add “and sundry”) are assured a place in heaven. Being confident that we are assured of our salvation, despite our many failings and a mountain of sin, is delusional and presumptuous.

At the most basic level, "for many" is a faithful translation of the original Latin phrase, “pro multis.” Moreover, scripture would lend support to use of “many” instead of “all. For example, the Prophet Isaiah (53:12) prophesied that the Messiah would take away "the sins of many," and Christ Himself also said His Blood would be shed for "many" (Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24). This does not mean that Christ did not die for the sake of all humanity, for that is indisputable from Scripture. Rather, it upholds the reality that each individual must also accept and abide in the grace won by Christ in order to attain eternal life. The recovery of the wording, "for many," affirms that salvation is not completely automatic. The words “for many” more accurately suggest that while Christ's redemptive suffering makes salvation available to all, it does not follow that all men are saved. Our salvation is contingent upon us making the correct respond to God’s invitation to the heavenly banquet.

In today’s parable of the Wedding Banquet, we have just heard the perfect illustration of this point. To understand the nature of the feast, we have to look at the first reading, where the Prophet Isaiah describes the feast of joy as one marking the End Times. It is the Feast of Judgment. Note that in the Isaian prophecy, not only Israel but all nations are invited to it. The veil of sadness that has covered the Gentiles is now lifted, indeed, all grounds for mourning, even death, have vanished. The Old Testament picture of this feast has no shadow. In contrast, the New Testament, or today’s gospel image, is covered with many shadows.

In the parable, the King, which is none other than God the Father, is holding a feast on the occasion of his Son’s wedding. The Book of Revelation (19:7) describes this as the Wedding of the Lamb, where the Son– Lamb-Bridegroom, who by means of his perfect sacrifice on the cross, brings about the marital union with the Church-Bride. We can see in this image our own Eucharistic celebration which is an anticipation of the Heavenly Banquet. And so the king sends out his servants to announce his invitation, “Come to the wedding!” But not all respond positively. And it is here that we see how the parable combines two stories. The first has to do with the original guests invited to the feast.  However, they offer an insult to the King and his heir by declining the invitation. They put their own interests above his.  The second part of the story focuses on those who would never have considered getting such an invitation.  When the first group rejected the invitation, the servants were asked to go out into the streets to collect the “good and the bad.” This is an invitation of grace - undeserved, unmerited favour and kindness!  But this invitation also contains a warning for those who approach the wedding feast unworthily.  You need to be appropriately “dressed.”

The parable points to two forms of scorning the invitation to accept the King’s invitation to the banquet, and thus God’s supreme gift of salvation. The first form is indifference: those invited care nothing for the grace offered them – they have better things to do, their earthly business is more pressing. How often have I heard the excuse that people have no time to come to Church, that they are tired, that their children have to be ferried to tuition, that they wanted to spend quality time in the shopping malls or were busy arranging for a holiday on a Sunday. The second form of unworthiness, contrasting with the indifference of the invited guests, is that of the man who strolls into the banquet, and perhaps in our context, coming for for the Eucharistic celebration, dressed as if entering a pub or going to the beach.

Some would protest on his behalf. Why should he get dressed up? Shouldn’t the King be happy that he had come at all? This is where we see the truth of that adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.” Rather than realising that we are coming into the presence of the King of Kings, the Ruler of the cosmos, we quite often witness the greatest contemptuous familiarity by our lackadaisical behaviour. But the story certainly points to more than mere church attire. The Church constantly cautions us that we should receive communion only in a state of grace; for to receive Christ unworthily in a state of serious or mortal sin would transform what was originally a blessing into a curse.

It is true that God bestows things on us without measure. It is true that He wishes the salvation of all. It is certainly the gospel truth that Christ died not just for a few but for all. But it is not true, that we can presume that such salvation is guaranteed without any effort on our part, without any true conversion of the heart, without any transformation, conversion and sacrifice that comes from the core of our being. God bestows the grace of salvation and offers it to all of us, but now we must be willing to give ourselves entirely to him, without calculating, without stinginess. With much grace comes greater responsibility.

The kingdom of God is a feast – and we are all bidden to come to the feast. But the invitation to the feast is never forced. The invite can be set aside and past over due to daily concerns and sin. The point is that though men suppose they highly prize the thought of sharing in God’s kingdom, they may in fact be rejecting appeals to enter it. But God continues to appeal to us to join in the feast. Day by day, week by week, and year by year, as we go through life, we are weaving the garment that we shall wear for this great Wedding Banquet. It is the garment that had been given to us at our baptism, where we, as St Paul reminds us, have “put on Christ.” It is the garment that is strengthened and fortified by the Sacraments of the Church. It is the garment that is knitted together with all the tears of sorrow for our sins and tears of joy at the reconciliation with our brethren. It is also the garment that is adorned with the jewels of virtue and good deeds. Are you ready to feast at the Lord's banquet table or have you come improperly dressed?

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