The middle aged, unmarried niece of a neighbor and friend of mine had an aggressive cancer in the area of the throat and mouth. The prospect was dim and very frightening. The doctors were speaking about the possibility of removing her voice box and tongue, if the chemotherapy and radiation treatments proved ineffective.
I never met this woman, but I did write to her, finding it very difficult to choose the right words and sentiments. Glib statements of religious assurance – “Put your faith in God and God will take care of you” – as appropriate and well-meaning as they may be, can also sound so Pollyannaish, like an encouragement to the sick person to deny the seriousness of the real situation and live instead in a dream world, a figment of imagination.
And yet, we say such things all the time, and we mean them; they come from the bottom of our concerned and aching hearts. The constant tradition of our sacred scriptures, both Jewish and Christian, is built on our central belief that the creator of the universe is not a mathematical proposition or a scientific principle, certainly not a distant deity who cares nothing about the world and its people, but rather the Creative Spirit that has loved the universe into existence and is forever intimately involved with it in an exquisitely compassionate way.
Jesus’ role and purpose among us is to finalize that concept, to make it crystal clear for all future time. Thousands of cultures and nations and societies in the history of Planet Earth have each developed images and identities of God — often taken to be plural: the gods. But we maintain that no people, no human being, has ever known God as truthfully, as factually, or as intimately as Jesus has.
In his story about the banquet, which we’ve just heard proclaimed again, he is telling us that the Creative Spirit dwells among us, partakes of our tables and invites us to his. He cautions us, in this very homely parable, not to be absent from the event, not to make the mistake of choosing other lesser goods over this one greatest good. Jesus the story-teller assures us that the failure of some to recognize the importance of the invitation and therefore to stay away from the feast will not result in its cancellation; it goes on inevitably, and anyone who accepts and wants to enjoy it is welcome.
So, what did I say to the cancer-stricken woman? I did not assure her that a miraculous healing would take place. I would not even suggest that. What I did say, in these or other words, is that she had a guaranteed reservation at the banquet and that, on good days and on bad, she should simply bask in the warmth of her host’s love — and believe, because it is true, that in the end, no matter how things go, it is not the disease and death that will win, but the everlasting, all-powerful love of her Creator.
We don’t have to be in similarly dire straits to appreciate that life-giving relationship with God; we are called to live in it always. It is our birthright. But from Sunday to Sunday, it is so easy to forget that we have been invited to the banquet — and are there, if we want to be!
I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that I almost always come to Mass with troubles threatening to weigh me down – and it’s here that I get the strength to go on with joy and new hope. I hope you can say the same.