Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Accepting the invitation to the banquet

Banqueting at the end-of-term dinner organised by the Durrell School of Corfu ... we are all invited to the heavenly banquet, but are we ready to accept the invitation? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Introduction:

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Easter Day offer a number of alternatives at each point:

1, Acts 10: 34-43 or Isaiah 25: 6-9;
2, Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; or the Easter Anthems;
3, I Corinthians 15: 1-11, or Acts 10: 34-43;
4, John 20: 1-18 or Mark 16: 1-8.

Although this is not mentioned in the Church of Ireland Directory 2012, the RCL states that “Acts 10: 34-43” should be read as either the First or Second Reading” (Revised Common Lectionary, Pew Edition, London: Mowbray, 1997, p. 482.).

This makes it highly unlikely that the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 25: 6-9) is going to be heard in many Church of Ireland parishes on Easter morning, and it is even less likely that anyone is going to preach on this reading on Easter morning.

Nevertheless, this is the reading we are looking at in our Bible study in this morning’s tutorial group.

Ησαϊασ 25: 6-9

6 καὶ ποιήσει Κύριος σαβαὼθ πᾶσι τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ἐπὶ τὸ ὄρος τοῦτο. πίονται εὐφροσύνην, πίονται οἶνον,
7 χρίσονται μύρον. ἐν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ παράδος ταῦτα πάντα τοῖς ἔθνεσιν· ἡ γὰρ βουλὴ αὕτη ἐπὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη.
8 κατέπιεν ὁ θάνατος ἰσχύσας, καὶ πάλιν ἀφεῖλε Κύριος ὁ Θεὸς πᾶν δάκρυον ἀπὸ παντὸς προσώπου· τὸ ὄνειδος τοῦ λαοῦ ἀφεῖλεν ἀπὸ πάσης τῆς γῆς, τὸ γὰρ στόμα Κυρίου ἐλάλησε.
9 καὶ ἐροῦσι τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ· ἰδοὺ ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν ἐφ᾿ ᾧ ἠλπίζομεν καὶ ἠγαλλιώμεθα, καὶ σώσει ἡμᾶς. οὗτος Κύριος, ὑπεμείναμεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἀγαλλιασόμεθα καὶ ἐφρανθησόμεθα ἐπὶ τῇ σωτηρίᾳ ἡμῶν,

Isaiah 25: 6-9

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

An Orthodox icon of the Mystical Supper

Looking at the text:

Isaiah 24-27 is frequently called the “Isaiah Apocalypse” because of the recurrence of eschatological themes found in later apocalyptical writings, including universal judgment, the eschatological banquet and heavenly signs.

This section is a transitional form between traditional prophetic and apocalyptical materials, dating between 540 BC and 425 BC. These chapters contain a variety of types of material, including:

1, Four eschatological prophecies: 24: 1-6; 24: 16b-23; 25: 6-10a; 26: 20 to 27: 1.
2, Four apocalyptic poems of deliverance: 24: 7-16a; 25: 1-5; 26: 1-6; 27: 2-11.
3, Oracles of doom and triumph: 26: 20-27; 27: 12-13; compare 25: 10b-12.
4, A processional psalm (25: 1-6), and an apocalyptic psalm (27: 2-11).

In the chapter before the one we are reading from this morning(Isaiah 24: 21-23), we read that “on that day,” at the end of time, God shall punish rebellious heavenly beings and the “kings of the earth,” after imprisoning them for a long time. “The Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and ... he will manifest his glory.” Isaiah speaks of the time when the age will end.

In this passage, which is the third eschatological section, Isaiah tells of the divine banquet.

Verse 6:

This banquet on “this mountain” (Mount Zion, see Revelation 14: 1) is going to include eating and drinking, not just food and wine, but “rich food filled with marrow” and “well-matured wines strained clear.”

This is the Banquet of Messiah. At this banquet, we find that God’s generosity to us is not poured out in small measures or short measures. And when God comes to dine with us, “fast food” is not on the menu.

Verse 7:

This time, which is hosted by God, is a time “for all peoples,” a time to celebrate God’s victory over death, which lasts for ever – an important idea, that makes this an appropriate reading on Easter morning.

God “will destroy ... the shroud” of mourning that is cast over all peoples the “sheet” and of ignorance that is spread over all nations.

Death will no longer be the end. And our Gospel reading this morning tells us how this achieved.

Verse 8:

This celestial banquet is a symbol of eternal happiness, of the coming of the Kingdom of God. God will destroy the power of death, “the disgrace of his people” for ever.

Verse 9:

The salvation that all have been waiting for, across all the ages, will be visible “on that day.”

In our Easter faith, we identify “the Lord for whom we have waited” with the Risen Christ. “Let us be glad and rejoice” (c.f. Psalm 118: 24).

Some comments and reflections:

The “Road to Emmaus” Icon by Sister Marie Paul OSB of the Mount of Olives Monastery, Jerusalem (1990), commissioned by the Canadian theologian Father Thomas Rosica

The resurrection accounts in the Gospel present a number of meals the Risen Christ shares with the disciples:

1, The Risen Christ appears to the disciples as they are eating (Mark 16: 14).
2, The Risen Christ shares the evening meal at Emmaus (Luke 24: 36-43).
3, The Risen Christ prepares breakfast for the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (John 21: 1-14).

In this reading from the Book of Isaiah, the prophet is looking forward to the Day of the Lord when God’s purposes will be fulfilled. In images later picked up in the Book of Revelation to describe the culmination of history, Isaiah looks forward to the day when death will be swallowed up for ever and when “the Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”

This picture of the final establishment of God’s will, the coming of God’s Kingdom that we long for, is couched in terms of a banquet, “On this mountain, the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25: 6).

This depiction of heaven in terms of a banquet is picked up regularly by Christ in his teaching. A well-known example is the parable of the Great Banquet, in which a man prepares a great feast and invites many guests. When some of these guests make excuses, then the invitation is extended to all and sundry (Luke 14: 15-24). That parable conveys the message that not just the original guests (the Israelites) are invited to the Banquet, but now all people (the Gentiles) are invited to share in this banquet.

Later in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus looks forward to the heavenly banquet as he confronts his own death when he says to the disciples at the Last Supper: “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22: 18).

The Eucharist is the anticipation of this heavenly banquet that awaits us all. This vision of the banquet table at the end of time is one of the most beautiful, hopeful visions of the future in the Bible. The great banquet is part of the Messianic expectation (see Luke 14: 15-24; Revelation 19: 5-9), so that Christ frequently uses the image of a wedding banquet or feast (Matthew 22: 1-14; Matthew 25: 1-13; Luke 14: 15-24).

How great and wonderful it is to be invited to this special meal. Everyone is there – old friends, family, past, present and future generations are all seated together.

But Isaiah also has a second account of the banquet in Isaiah 65: 11-15, where those who are called do not answer, those who are spoken to do not listen, those who are chosen do evil. These people go hungry while the servants eat, go thirsty while the servants drink, are put to shame while the servants rejoice, cry out with heart-felt pain and wail while the servant sing with glad hearts,

Isaiah sees two groups of people in this second account of the great end-time banquet: one group of people sitting at the table of rich food; the other a group of people who were once in a fortified palace, but who were ruthless and whose city is a heap of ruins.

Earlier in Isaiah 25, God puts an end to their ruthlessness so that he could host his banquet. Who are the ones that need to take shelter from these ruthless people? Specifically Isaiah says, you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress (Isaiah 25: 4).

The poor and the needy are always the targets of the ruthless, but God will reverse their plight. Isaiah says the great banquet at the end of time will be “for all peoples” (verse 6), and not just the elite few.

Isaiah says that the city of the ruthless is to become a heap and a ruin (verse 2). The city of the people who think they are too good to accept the invitation to the banquet is sacked.

Christ’s whole life on earth involved extending the invitation to the banquet to those others refused to dine with: the lame, the blind, people with leprosy, people with demons women, children, the hungry, the needy, tax collectors, former prostitutes, soldiers, Romans, Samaritan women, Syro-Phoenician women, penitent thieves and Pharisees too.

And these are the people we are invited to dine with on Easter morning. The only way I can lose my place at that table is by thinking I am better than anyone else he has invited to the banquet.

God’s love knows no bounds. The God we love is also the God who loves the people that are not quite like us. The Lord who loves us and invites us to his banquet requires us to extend that invitation.

An icon of the Mystical Supper by the Orthodox priest, Father Luke (Rolland) Dingman, of Brookdale, California

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with a tutorial group of MTh students on 28 March 2012.

Poems for Lent (33): ‘Affliction’ by George Herbert

‘My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart / With scattered smart …’ George Herbert’s consoling words recall a night of nightmares and prayers that turned to a beautiful day at High Leigh in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

For my Poem for Lent this morning, I have chosen another poem by the poet-priest George Herbert, ‘Affliction.’

George Herbert wrote five ‘Affliction’ poems. This is the fourth ‘Affliction’ poem and sometimes headed ‘Temptation.’ This is a poem of spiritual conflict and healing.

In the privacy of our own hearts and minds, on the most intimate level, we all deal with affliction, pain, criticism, loneliness, regret and fear.

I was reminded of this poem as I recalled a restless and sleepless night last year while I was at a conference in High Leigh, near Hoddesdon, in Hertfordshire. I had been travelling since early morning, and had a busy working morning in Cambridge, before going on the conference that afternoon. and late at night realised I had forgotten to take my medication, prescribed for my sarcoidosis, with breakfast that morning. Anyone who has been prescribed steroids knows the dangers of taking them too late and night, and the fears and dreams that can come to the fore in our dreams.

I woke constantly, and was disturbed continually. But I was comforted throughout that night by the truth of the words of Compline we had prayed collectively that night before I went to bed:

Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray
That you, with steadfast love, would keep
Your watch around us while we sleep.

From evil dreams defend our sight,
From fears and terrors of the night;
Tread underfoot our deadly foe,
That we no sinful thought may know.

O Father, that we ask be done
Through Jesus Christ, your only Son;
And Holy Spirit, by whose breath
Our souls are raised to life from death


(Common Worship, p. 82)

I awoke to a very pleasant morning and a fresh new day in the Hertfordshire countryside.

In this morning’s poem, George Herbert gives voice to interior pain, to thoughts that are out of control, to helplessness in the face of anxiety. But in his honesty, we can see a way forward to hope.

However, he does not mention any external event at the root of his affliction. His entire focus is on the experience of suffering on the spiritual, mental and emotional level.

He reminds us that we are not in total control of our thoughts, and not all thoughts are good, true or helpful. He asks God to “dissolve the knot” of his fears and emotions, because he cannot do it for himself. Into the unruly conflict of his own mind, he invites God’s presence, because God’s light will “scatter” all the “rebellions of the night.”

Herbert concludes that life’s difficult journey, “day by day,” has God alone as its goal. If our thoughts can wound us, then God alone can heal us. God can subdue and calm our painful and rebellious thoughts, and he is the source of all Light.

Affliction, by George Herbert

Broken in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief:
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.