It’s interesting how often Jesus tells stories that involve a wedding. If we look to St. Matthew’s Gospel alone, we find that early on Jesus explains why his disciples don’t practice fasting, while the disciples of John the Baptist do: “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (Matt. 9:15). In other words, Jesus describes his ministry in the context of a wedding, a fundamental occasion of unmitigated happiness. Jesus’ disciples do not fast because the Bridegroom (capital “B”) is with them.
We hear this description echoed in our Gospel today, as Our Lord talks about the kingdom of heaven. Here, the kingdom is compared to a wedding banquet. Many are invited to the feast, but some choose not to accept the invitation. “Look, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is prepared; come to the wedding banquet” (Matt. 22:4), says the king who has invited them. The balance of the story is how people are not only unprepared, but actively hostile to the invitation! The result is that the king sends his slaves out to invite everyone, good and bad alike, and to gather together a company of people who will celebrate the feast.
Not only did Jesus tell stories that focused on the joy of the wedding festival, he also (according to John’s Gospel) performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. That miracle was seen by the early Christians as a blessing of all marriages, as Jesus turned water into wine so that the wedding banquet could continue. “But you have kept the best wine until now” (Jo. 3:10), the wedding guests tell the host. As our marriage liturgy says, Jesus “adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle,” miraculously providing the wherewithal for the celebration in Cana.
Given Jesus’ reference to wedding celebrations, and his appearance in Cana, it’s small wonder that the Gospels identify Jesus himself as the Bridegroom (Capital “B”) of the heavenly banquet. “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away and then they will fast” (Matt. 9:15), as Jesus says in the ninth chapter of Matthew. As our gospel reading today suggests, Jesus himself is the king’s son whose wedding festival is prepared while the invited guests ignore the invitation, reacting with indifference and hostility. Jesus is the Bridegroom whose coming is an occasion for joy for all people.
As the story of the wedding in Cana suggests, Jesus must have liked weddings, since more than once they supplied him with a theme or an apt comparison. Small wonder that this is so. Then and now, marriage was celebrated as a basis for human life and community, not least of all in providing the next generation of members of the community. It widened communal bonds by bringing families together and reinforcing ties. For the couple, all of this multi-generational and multi-faceted action, with implications that went far beyond the private and personal, was joined to their own vows to each other within the familiar context of “love, honor, and cherish” that made this manner of life their own.
Into the midst of this human reality of marriage, and of all reality in fact, steps the Bridegroom with a capital “B”: Jesus himself. As our Gospel says, all are invited to the festival, both good and bad alike. The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is addressed to all of us, no matter how indifferent or hard of heart. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like: the gathering of the company. The Bridegroom’s arrival is bound to shake things up, as invited guests refuse the invitation, and new guests are brought in. People are not ready for the Bridegroom to enter, and some are even found at the festival without the proper garb! “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14), as Jesus says at the end of the story.
All of this is set within the overriding joy of the marriage feast. “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (Matt. 9:15), as Jesus says earlier in Matthew. When the Bridegroom enters (the Bridegroom with a capital “B”), human community and every tie that binds us, as families and as individuals, is taken up and transformed by the joy of the heavenly feast. That is the promise of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which opens up a reality that goes far beyond the joys that we can know in this life. Those joys are sure and certain signs of something that passes our understanding; the promise of even more to come.