THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
How many of you recently have gone out to eat with your families? Holiday shoppers, especially on the weekends, will generally dine out because of the convenience or simply to enjoy the festive atmosphere that virtually every restaurant or public place provides. Naturally, we have all felt the economic pinch when paying our guest checks – meals have become noticeably more expensive.
This price increase is evident in a humorous little anecdote. One day, a couple went out to a local restaurant to eat. When they received their menu, they were shocked by the prices. “John, every entrée here is over $200! We can’t afford these prices; let’s go somewhere else.”
At that moment, the waiter came over to the couple’s table to take their orders. Feeling uncomfortable, the couple looked around to see a filled restaurant with scores of customers waiting impatiently at the bar for a table.
“This just doesn’t make sense,” the wife whispered to her husband.
Turning to their server, the woman asked, “Excuse me, sir. These prices are not what we expected. Please forgive us, but we hadn’t realized you had such a wealthy clientele here.”
“Oh,” the waiter responded. “These persons are not wealthy. They are actually poor and homeless.”
“But how can that be and how can they afford such prices?” the woman questioned.
“That’s easy,” the waiter said. “The owner Himself pays for their meals.”
“Wow! Nice owner!” the wife responded in surprise. “Do you think He can cover our dinner also?”
“He already has,” the waiter replied.
Perplexed, the wife looked at her husband, who was as confused.
“So, who IS this owner?” the woman asked the waiter.
“Oh, you should know by now. However, if you don’t know, I will gladly reveal His name,” said the waiter. “But it will cost you $200 dollars!”
So it is with the Eucharistic meal that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ serves Himself every Sunday. The admission to His banquet is free of charge; the supper has already been paid for by the Son of God Himself, through His sacrificed Body and precious Blood. Nowhere in the world is anything so awesome and of such unspeakable value given to anyone at absolutely no cost.
Undoubtedly, people will pay exorbitant amounts of money for such fine items as gold, silver, and diamonds; but for God’s gift of divine grace, infinitely more valuable than anything material, man exhausts nothing of his own. And indeed, this goes to show that the best and most invaluable things in life were never “things” to begin with.
Gifts from the Holy Spirit
In the Gospel reading on the Eleventh Sunday of St. Luke, known alternately as the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, Jesus narrates the well-known Parable of the Great Banquet. The sainted ancestors of Christ (such great personages as the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and David the Prophet-King), living centuries before the incarnation of the Son of God, all prefigured in some way the coming of Christ and responded to God’s call with zeal and obedience (cf. Heb 11:39-40). By participating in His economy, or plan of salvation, these ancestors of the Lord prepared the way for His coming, laying the groundwork for faith and allowing us to participate in the eternal banquet of God’s Kingdom, which they also share.
The story is straightforward: A certain owner gave a great supper and invited all those whom he knew. Naturally, the supper was free, but the invited guests all began making excuses. Their interest, sadly, did not lie with the master of the household. They had their personal responsibilities to fulfill. They had distractions to face, most of which were, at least in the guests’ minds, more enticing and fulfilling than sharing a meal and fellowship with the master and their fellow citizens.
The master was angered – not because he himself was personally shunned – but because of the hardness of heart exemplified by his invited guests. He loved them deeply and wanted only that which would benefit them. Sadly, they chose to spend time apart from the master and from each other, closing themselves off from the rest of society, absorbed by their own personal lives. But the master’s anger did not linger; it was immediately turned into action. Consequently, he called his servants and ordered them to go deep into the cracks and crevices of society to find individuals from every walk of life to attend his banquet.
The master was essentially looking for new friends, people who would be willing to love and be loved, unashamed to spend time with God and with one another. And so, the Lord concludes that “they will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God, for the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Lk 13:29-30).
Embracing Christ’s Love
There are three principal points I wish to make with regard to this Gospel passage. The first point is a palpable one, as taught by the Lord in today’s parable: The Kingdom of God is understood as a celebration, a banquet that is attended by many people. Now this view has certain sociological underpinnings; in other words, the early Christians, like virtually all peoples everywhere, experienced a socio-religious phenomenon. They gathered together in fellowship, either on Sunday evening in the first century (or early Sunday morning in the second century), to share a fellowship meal known as the agape and to partake of the Lord’s Eucharist.
These events were conducted in a festal atmosphere. The Jews and virtually all cultures from around the world marked a celebration by centering it around a meal, very much as we do today (weddings, christenings, even funerals, and other rites of passage). This theme of eating and drinking at a banquet became a central theme descriptive of the joyful nature of God’s Kingdom. Christ Himself is accused in the Gospels as someone constantly feasting on food and drink with His disciples, and Jesus does tell His disciples at the Last Supper: “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mk 14:25). The banquet analogy of the Kingdom became a central theme in how the early Church understood and defined the Kingdom.
The second point is intrinsic to the nature of the Kingdom of God. In other words, the ones who are welcomed by God are never a special group set aside from others. The call is given to all men, women, and children regardless of their background. And those who are called are not simply to rejoice on the very basis of being called by God, lest their pride overtakes them and they take on the air of a self-righteous person. More importantly, they are to embrace one another in the Kingdom of God with their whole heart, even if they do not know them. What does this mean? How can we pray for people we do not know?
Archimandrite Zacharias has written: “Prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer.” So, can we say we love God and not be concerned about our brother’s or sister’s welfare, about their feelings, about their happiness and spiritual growth in Christ? In truth, how can we dare to be gracious and kind to God, going through the motions of ritual, but not wish to attend church with others, to share the same meal with them, to commune from the same chalice? There is a disconnect somewhere, and the Lord, in today’s parable, indicates that the master’s wrath is the result of man’s refusal to embrace and love his fellow man, even if he appears outwardly apologetic to God. The Evangelist John says it another way: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates his brother is a liar” (I Jn 4:20). By extending ourselves to others in community, we return to our true selves and align ourselves with the divine image. For indeed, we were not created to live for ourselves, alone and apart from others, but to live in community, in perfect unity and harmony like the Holy Trinity.
My third point is that man’s return to His true self occurs when man begins to move away from his own self. To illustrate this, I wish to call attention to an ancient saying and an inviting modern phenomenon. A certain abba of the grueling Egyptian desert taught that the road man takes to arrive at God is ultimately the road man takes to come back to his true self. All roads leading to God are lined with several altars. These altars are not manmade, nor are they present only in churches and temples. These altars have been established by the Lord in each human heart, and it is here that we are required to offer sacrifice daily. It is here that we are called to offer our love to God, precisely at the moment that we offer it toward one another.
Along the same lines, these altars are now also available to us through the miracle of cyberspace. As our new Metropolitan Savas indicated so eloquently during his enthronement speech this past week, the advancements of modern technology and the Internet have bridged continents and people in the most significant of ways. More and more people are using computers and iPads and Smartphones, meaning that we have faster and ready access to their hearts. But it is here where we need to be most judicious and offer Christ’s words of hope and salvation to others – to give them paradise and not hell through our words and actions – to offer them a sacrifice worthy of God’s acceptance and not to desecrate that which the Lord Himself established in their hearts.
A Celebration of Fellowship
In closing, my dear people, let us rejoice in the banquet of God’s Kingdom, which we celebrate weekly during the Eucharist with one another. And let us enjoy not only the Lord Jesus’ company, but one another’s as well. For in our brother and sister we can see the face of God, and they can likewise see the face of God in us. To the Master of the Great Banquet be all glory and honor, now and world without end. Amen. (+)
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