It’s a well-known fact among undergraduate English majors that comedies end in marriage. Or most traditional romantic comedies, anyway. The old, classic, pattern is this: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. There are millions of variations now, thank heavens, but in traditional comedy marriage equals the happy ending. In fact, marriage means that we run out of story. All the good characters live in a state we call “happily ever after,” but we never get much of a hint about what that’s going to mean. They just get married and live happily ever after and the story is over. Often a Shakespearean comedy will end with a dance or a celebration, as if to emphasize that the fulfillment of the marriage plot is a communal gathering in which everyone celebrates, everyone comes together to rejoice over, the union of two lovers. The point of the story is to end up at a marriage feast. Beyond that nothing matters.
Something similar happens in Bible. Marriage and feasting in the Bible are used again and again as an image of the end of time, or the fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel. Here are two examples from the prophet Isaiah:
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called. (Isaiah 54:5)
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:5)
God’s plan, we’re told, will be fulfilled when God is wedded to the people of Israel, when God’s love for Israel will by God’s grace become mutual fidelity. And that marriage will be celebrated in a feast of rich food that includes everyone, not just Israel. Here’s what Isaiah prophesies in chapter 25:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. Isaiah 25:6
God will be satisfied when God’s work in Israel causes everyone to celebrate, when the doors are opened wide and the rich food and the fine wines flow unstintingly. God marries Israel and Israel marries God. The whole world rejoices.
A wedding feast is a particular kind of feast, isn’t it? At a wedding feast we all get together to celebrate the fact that someone else is the recipient of deep and abiding love. Two people are pledging their love for one another, but apart from the bride and groom everyone else goes to the wedding to celebrate a relationship that specifically excludes them. Do you remember the awful wedding scene in When Harry Met Sally? Harry and Sally’s best friends Marie and Jess are getting married, and Jess stands up to give a toast. Here’s what he says:
Everybody could I have your attention please? I'd like to propose a toast to Harry and Sally. To Harry and Sally, if Marie or I had found either of them remotely attractive, we would not be here today.
Think about it: if those two marry each other, they aren’t going to marry you.
But it’s the peculiar generosity of a wedding feast that nobody cares. For once, we are thrilled that someone else has been chosen. That doesn’t happen often in life, does it? That we all get together to celebrate the fact that someone else is deeply loved and chosen? It takes a wonderful kind of selflessness to celebrate a marriage. That’s why the great feast of all people that celebrates what God has done on God’s holy mountain is a moment of pure, unthinkable grace. Israel is rejoicing in God. God is rejoicing in Israel. All the peoples of the world are rejoicing in what God has done for Israel, happy just to be included in the feast. No one is thinking selfishly.
In the gospels, Jesus talks about the big wedding party at the end of history, too. In Luke 14 Jesus talks about a great banquet to which many are invited but very few will come. Just before that he speaks of a wedding banquet at which all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. In Matthew 22, the kingdom of heaven is said to be like a tumultuous, urgent marriage feast. Because the guests won’t come to the party—in fact they kill the messengers who invite them—the king has their city burned down. Even when some guests are finally brought in—the good as well as the bad, we are told—one man gets thrown out to weep in the darkness, just because he is not dressed properly.
The kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, is a wedding feast that marks the end of all things, but it’s a tough, life-or-death kind of invitation. What you think makes you important will not matter at that feast. Who you think you are is not what matters there. It’s whether you will show up, humbly, respectfully, to celebrate. God is the host and the groom. God’s people are the bride. It’s more than we can really explain. Our happy-ever-after depends on our willingness to honor God’s love, however God chooses to love. God’s preferences matter now. Ours don’t.
But Jesus doesn’t just talk about wedding banquets. In John’s gospel, Jesus goes to one. When Jesus and his mother show up as guests at a wedding feast in Cana, they themselves are oddly called to put aside their own senses of identity and enter into a rich, selfless, celebration. Mary is few steps ahead of Jesus. She notices that the host is running out of wine. Jesus doesn’t care. In fact, his response to his mother is alarmingly impersonal: “Woman, (you aren’t really supposed to refer to your mother as “woman,” then or now) what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Like some other women in John’s gospel, Mary doesn’t flinch when Jesus challenges her. What she does, actually, is challenge him to be more like her. She says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” But she is silently saying something to Jesus too. By ignoring him and telling the servants to go ahead, she is sending Jesus a major message. In silent mother language the message is this: “Look here Mr. Hotshot, I don’t care who you are or what you think your hour is supposed to be. We’re at a wedding banquet. The most human thing you can do is celebrate. Wedding banquets are urgent invitations. The time is now. The kingdom of God is at hand.” She doesn’t care whether Jesus addresses her with the proper respect, and in her parental way she is teaching him the tough lesson that it doesn’t really matter who he is either.
But her words turn out to be much more than a rebuke, because this is more than a social occasion. Her words make the feast. They make the fine wine flow for all the people gathered in what has now become a holy place. Now, this is THE great wedding feast. Now, because Mary doesn’t care about her prerogatives and Jesus doesn’t care about his hour, they find themselves celebrating the end of all things, the point of all creation. This is a mini-apocalypse, the moment when we drop what we think we care about and celebrate someone else’s love. The wine pours out for all people at that feast. Those who humble themselves are exalted. Those who can celebrate what love does, whatever improbable thing it does, are celebrating the crazy destiny of all God’s creatures, the destiny of God’s creation: selfless love.
That wedding banquet at which most of the guests are too inebriated even to realize that they are drinking the finest, most miraculous wine last, is a sign of what God wants for all of God’s people in the end: a feast of self-forgetting. A celebration of whatever love does, whatever Jesus tells us to do. It may be tough, and chaotic, this feast for all people. The wine will be Jesus’s own blood. Getting to that feast may involve dying to ourselves, but that’s the point of our stories, the endpoint of all our journeys.
This morning we are gathered at a double feast. The feast of the Eucharist is given to us from the high place of the altar, the wedding banquet that celebrates our unity with God and with each other in the self-forgetting love of Jesus. But today we also have the great joy of celebrating a baptism. Going down into that water of baptism, we say, is a dying with Jesus and a rising to new life in him. Gathered around the font as we all are, we celebrate that God chose NAME.
Do you taste the banquet? The foretaste of heaven? Rejoicing in the life of NAME, in God’s profound love for NAME, is a sip of the wine from our happy-ever-after party. We’re at the feast that God provides for all people. The questions we find tough every day: who’s in, who’s out, who is winning, who matters, what’s going to happen to me—we don’t care about them here. We care about God and NAME. Here is a moment of unthinkable grace. And it’s our joy to welcome NAME to that great celebration. NAME, whatever your journey will be, wherever you go, whoever accepts you or turns away from you, this is where you are headed. This is the point of your travels: a great feast, a feast of self-forgetting generosity and love. NAME, in your own day, in your own hour, when the invitation comes, do whatever he tells you.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
20 January 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia