Choose Joy

By George Westhaver

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son.

The parables of our Lord always address a problem. In this sense, they are like the miracles. In his miracles, our Lord heals different kind of sicknesses, in his parables he addresses problems and heals sicknesses that have their root in the human mind or soul. The problem or sickness that this parable addresses is a refusal of joy.

St. Thomas Aquinas describes the sin of accidie or sloth as “a sadness at the divine good,” a sadness in the face of divine good. This refusal of joy, accidie, is not just laziness, but a spiritual paralysis that prevents us from rejoicing in what is beautiful or good. This assessment does not attack us because we sometimes feel sad.

Rather, Thomas fills out what the epistle for today teaches. In the face of divine goodness, especially when this goodness is mixed up with weakness or corruption, we can choose sadness, a kind of despair. This is not a sadness that we just suffer, but this is a sadness we choose. We probably don’t choose this directly, or all at once, but by many other smaller decisions.

This is why, in the epistle this morning, St. Paul encourages us to cultivate disciplines that help us to recognize and rejoice in divine goodness. In the face of evil around us or within us, St. Paul invites us to recognize and give thanks for the fragments of divine wisdom and goodness wherever they are found:

be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.

This is not a matter of merely personal consequence, as significant as that would be for each of us. Pope Benedict XVI is among those who argue that a society which does not encourage us to accept the invitation to divine joy, encouraging us to “give thanks always for all things unto God,” is the “kind of society [which] will of its nature be sorrowful, a place of despair. … A society whose public order is consistently determined by agnosticism is not a society that has become free but a society that has despaired, marked by the sorry of man who is fleeing from God and in contradiction with himself.”

How much space there is in our lives for this joy of the Lord is probably a much more important question for us and for our society than whether we remain in the European Union or finally leave it, and whether we can accept this invitation to joy will always shape the social character of political decisions, the decisions we don’t like, as well as the decisions we like.

In what form does our Lord’s parable heal our souls and invite us to joy today? I propose we consider first the character of the marriage and then the character of the bride. This will help us to see both the problem of choosing joy and that lack of love pictured for us in the wedding garment. We can then come back to the invitation to the wedding feast with new eyes to see how we might after all give a positive response to the invitation to joy.

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son.

Gregory the Great summed up the dominant tradition among the early interpreters when he said that “God the Father made a marriage for God the Son when he joined Him to human nature in the womb of the virgin.” In his reflections on the prophet Hosea, and Hosea’s description of God betrothing his people, Dr. Pusey argues that “three times especially did the Lord espouse the Church to himself. First in His Incarnation, when He willed to unite His own Deity with our humanity forever. The marriage takes place secondly on the cross when the Bridegroom’s side is opened, and the of blood and the water figure the sacramental life of the Church, and this marriage takes place, thirdly, on the day of Pentecost, when the Son with the Father pours out the Holy Spirit upon the Bride, ‘whereby He dwelleth in her and she in Him.’”

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son. Under whatever aspect we consider the wedding, it is an invitation to joy, to rejoice that God has come down to be with us, that God has conquered sin and death, and that the divine bridegroom goes away, only to be more near and present by his Spirit. In this way the parable pictures the life of the Church in the present, the House which Wisdom built with the Seven pillars of the Holy Spirit. I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the House of the Lord. We are invited to choose the joy of the feast and dwelling in this house.

Here we need to pause and look more closely at the bride. After the guests who were first invited by the prophets and apostles refuse to come, the servants of the king go looking for new guests, “as many as they can find … and gather them together both bad and good.” This description reveals a significant problem — it tells us that we should expect to see the same kind of problems with the new guests as we saw already with the guests who refused the first invitation.

In the most profound sense, the ones who mock and crucify the Lord are not just those present in Jerusalem in the first century. Rather, we are there in that each of us chooses the sins that require the divine mercy to come down to find us and to save us. Or, in St. Paul’s words, “we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead.”

In one way or another, we thrust this crown of thorns on Christ’s head when we insist that we will not acknowledge his Kingship, when we choose against his wisdom and love, when we indulge or take delight in inflicting pain or suffering on others.

Now perhaps we see the problem better. Why would anyone choose sadness in the face of divine joy? The presence of the bad alongside the good, the wheat and the weeds, is depressing and discouraging. We may not want to be at a party with people like that. The opportunities for discouragement or rejection are more serious when we consider that it’s not just the guests who show this mixture of bad and good, but the king’s servants also, the priests and bishops and other ministers who have such a key role at the wedding feast.

The mixture of the bad and good implies another problem that may lead us to decline the invitation to divine joy. When St. Paul describes the marriage between Christ and the Church, he writes that

Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it … That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church.

Christ marries Bridezilla, each of us, but he promises to transform us into a bride of divine beauty, clothed in the bright garments of salvation, adorned with the jewels of virtue and the fruits of the Spirit, “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”

This is why the invitation to joy is difficult — we say yes when we accept the vocation to become this kind of bride; the “yes” comes with a willingness to engage in the struggle with whatever part of ourselves we see in non-love, of cruelty, of complicity, or of corrupting pleasure. Coming to the feast means not only bearing with the mixed character of others, the good and the bad together, but it also means bearing patiently with the mixed character we find in ourselves.

The invitation to the feast is an invitation to turn our gaze away from disappointment with ourselves or others to the Bridegroom who washes, changes, and clothes us. We are invited to choose joy, “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” Our trust is not in ourselves, but in the king’s son, the divine Bridegroom. When we doubt our capacity to accept the invitation, we are invited to have faith in God’s choice. We don’t do this all at once, but in many small ways when we accept the trial of the current moment as the place of divine action.

Perhaps you can see now why St. Augustine and St. Gregory, among many others, argue that the wedding garment is the garment of love:

Rightly is charity called a wedding garment: for our Creator wore this upon Him when He came to the marriage of Himself with the Church.

This garment, says Gregory, is “twice dyed … once with the love of God, and once with the love of neighbour.”

A person possessing this twofold love is able to contemplate, find, and rise to the divine love that is glimpsed or seen reflected in earthly forms, good and bad mixed together. A person wearing the twice-dyed garment will not abandon or give up on the neighbor with whom he runs. It is also defective love that we see in those who turn away from the feast to attend to their farms or merchandise. Even those things that are good and necessary become snares or obstacles when our attention is not ordered by divine love and wisdom.

The bridegroom warns us solemnly, solemnly, that when the joys which we find in the good things of this life are disconnected from the final end that gives them their perfection, even these good things, the farm and the merchandise, the necessary cares and occupations, become a danger to us. We don’t choose or reject the invitation to joy all at once, but in many little ways.

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son.

The parable invites us to share in divine joy, to turn away from the sadness we may be tempted to choose, discouraged by the mixed character of things, the good and bad, in ourselves and in the bride of Christ. Instead, we are invited to choose joy. As my colleague Father Robin Ward has preached, we are called to three practices inspired by the 17th-century founder of the Sulpicians, the priest Jean-Jacques Olier. These are three practices which we renew and learn whenever we gather together on Sunday morning or through the week.

The first practice is staying near to Jesus. The divine bridegroom invites us to joy by inviting us to come to the wedding feast, where he is both bridegroom and sacrifice, to come to the feast where he teaches, heals, and feeds. In the Book of Proverbs, the same Lord is the Wisdom who invites us to come, “eat of my bread, and drink the wine which I have mingled.”

Second, we are invited to repentance, to examine ourselves for the traits we see in those who reject the invitation to joy, to turn away from non-love, and to come into the House which wisdom has built. We will do that together in a few minutes.

And finally, we are invited to seek the gifts of the Spirit. Many of the early Fathers saw these gifts symbolized in the seven pillars of the House: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and piety, the spirit of the fear of God.

We seek Christ, we seek the new life in the Spirit, when we seek these gifts, when we reach out for them in practices of daily life. In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are invited to have what we are not, to feed on the divine life, to hear and receive to the wisdom of God. In seeking the joy God wishes to give, to reach out toward what we are not yet, the home which wisdom builds becomes the banquet house and the place where we live also.

The Rev. Dr. George Westhaver is the principal of Pusey House, Oxford, and a fellow of St. Cross College.


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