Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Today is the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, an important figure in the early days of the Cistercian reform of Benedictine monasticism and a great devotee of our Lady. Bernard had a profound understanding of the spirit of his age, and he captured its imagination and helped to shape it. While merely secular knights could be very jealous with regards to their ladies, Bernard knew that his love for his Lady (our Lady) would be in no way diminished if she received the attention and devotion of others. Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs, where he sees God as the bridegroom and the individual soul as the bride (“soul” is feminine in most romance languages), continue to inspire people today.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus likens the Kingdom of heaven to the wedding feast that a king gives for his son. The banquet table is a favorite image of the Kingdom today, but it is worth noting what Jesus says about this wedding feast, because Jesus does not liken the Kingdom to just any banquet, but to this particular banquet. And what a strange banquet it is! After all, here a king invites people who are presumably his own subjects to what seems to be a lovely banquet for his son, but the invited guests simply will not come! Not only that, but the subjects mistreat and kill the messengers who invite them to the banquet. What sort of people do this sort of thing? Well, unfortunately, we do, if salvation history is to be believed… The king organizing the banquet is not amused and destroys the people who abused and killed his servants. He then sends servants out to invite all people, the bad and the good alike until the hall is filled with guests. It all seems jovial enough, but then the king meets someone not dressed in a wedding garment. Addressing the man as “friend” the king asks him how he is there without the proper garment. The man declines to respond, so the king orders the man’s hands and feet bound and has him thrown out into the darkness, “where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Yes, the kingdom of heaven is like a banquet, but what a banquet it is!
Note how violent the imagery is in this parable! One could say that God can be “non-violent,” but when man becomes deaf to God’s grace, God has to raise his voice so that man might hear. Flannery O’Conner, who gave one of her novels the title The Violent Bear it Away (cf. Matthew 11:12, Douay-Reims), understood that God’s grace can manifest itself violently, but that this violence desires to heal out of love. Amputating a leg with gangrene is a gruesome, violent act (especially before the advent of anesthesia), but one that aims at the good of the person. So also, we should ask God to do whatever it takes to lead us and all persons to join the heavenly banquet table in the proper way, and then we should be grateful when God does deal with us in a way that may be jarring (but merciful!) in order to help us enter into the fullness of joy that is our deepest desire.
August 20th, 2015