This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. Bernard, August 20, 2020. The audio is available here.
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Mt 22,1). There is “a great mystery” echoing in these words: do you hear it? “I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5,32), the great mystery of the love of the Bridegroom and the Bride thrilling through the very heart of God and down through the history of creation and salvation. For who else can this beloved son of the king be, the Son for whom His Father prepares a joyful wedding feast, but Our Lord Jesus Christ? And who else can His bride be but the Church, whom He “loved” so much that he “handed himself over for her to sanctify her … that he might present to himself the Church in splendor” (Eph 5,25-26), St. Paul says, as His own spouse?
In his magnificent poem, “Romance of the Creation,” St. John of the Cross, the great poet of divine love, imagines an eternal dialogue between the Father and the Son:
“I wish to give You, My dear Son,
To cherish you, a lovely bride,
And one who for Your worth will merit
To live forever by Our side.
And she will eat bread at our table
The selfsame bread on which I’ve fed:
That she may know the worth and value
Of the Son whom I have bred,
And there enjoy with Me forever
The grace and glory that You shed.
‘Thanks to You, Almighty Father,’
The Son made answer to the Sire,
‘To the wife that You shall give Me
I shall give My lustrous fire,
‘That by its brightness she may witness
How infinite My Father’s worth
And how My being from Your being
In every way derived its birth.
‘I’ll hold her on My arm reclining
And with Your love will burn her so
That with an endless joy and wonder
Your loving kindness she may know.’
‘Let it be done, then,’ said the Father,
‘For your love’s surpassing worth.’
And the moment he pronounced it
Was the creation of the Earth.”
The poem continues to describe in dazzling splendor the creation of the heavens and the earth, the stars, the oceans, the heavenly hierarchy of angels – last of all, the human race. And this is the wedding which the eternal Father has prepared for His Only Son: the union of our humble human nature with His own divine glory:
“Then, to a deathless music sounding,
Bride to Bridegroom will be pressed,
Because He is the crown and headpiece
Of the Bride that He possessed.
To her beauty all the members
Of the just He will enlace
To form the body of the Bride
When taken into His embrace.
Tenderly in His arms He’ll take her
With all the force that God can give
And draw her nearer to the Father
All in one unison to live.
There with the single, same rejoicing
With which God revels, she will thrill,
Revelling with the Son, the Father,
And He who issues from Their will,
Each one living in the other;
samely loved, clothed, fed, and shod.
She, absorbed in Him forever,
She will live the Life of God.”
Dear friends of Christ, realize the height of the glory for which you were made, and to which we are all invited! The Father sent His servants, the apostles and prophets, and in the end His Son, to gather us in to the feast – not only to witness this union – but to become the Bride. Little and lowly though we are, we were made from all eternity for union with God.
It was for this that you were clothed in white on the day of your baptism and instructed to “keep it spotless until you arrive at the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may be rewarded with everlasting life” (Rite for Baptism of Children). And this white wedding garment signifies nothing else than charity, as the Apostle says: “Over all these [virtues and good works] put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14). Love is a bond; it unites the lover with the beloved. And it is love, and only love, which will unite us to God.
Now we understand why this poor man who came improperly attired to the wedding is punished so harshly by the king. It’s not a matter of violating the dress code. “He [who] enters in to the wedding feast, but without the wedding garment,” says Gregory the Great, “has faith … but not charity” (Catena Aurea). I’m sure it will not come as a surprise to you to hear that there are many in the Church, in the pews, even in the seminaries and the holy priesthood, who have faith, but lack love. Faith is good and necessary, indeed indispensable—by faith we come to believe in the love God has for us—but as the Apostle teaches, “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing“ (1 Cor 13:2). Faith is a means to an end; it is a stepping stone to charity. In heaven, faith and hope will pass away; love alone, “the greatest of these,” remains forever, because love alone unites us to God.
“Many are called, but few are chosen,” says the Lord. All are invited, we might say, but some do not wish to come. Others come only so far, but lack the resolve to come all the way: “I will answer the invitation and come into the hall, into the Church, but I will not put on the garment of charity which Our Lord offers.” Why?
Here Saint Bernard, whose feast we celebrate today, may be of some help to us. The Church honors Saint Bernard with the title of “Doctor Caritatis,” the Doctor or teacher of charity. Saint Bernard distinguishes four stages of the growth of love in us; we might call them four steps in putting on the garment of charity.
In the first stage, which he calls “carnal love,” we are drawn to the love of Our Creator simply by considering all the gifts He has freely given us, His creatures: free will, self-awareness, hearts capable of loving, an intellect to comprehend the truth, the beauty of the world, the love of our families. One need not even be a Christian to love God with this kind of love. But it is more about the gifts than the Giver.
In the second stage, as we come to know God better by faith, we begin to love Him for what more He can do for us. This is the way children in the faith love the Lord. Saint Bernard calls this stage “mercenary love” because it remains self-interested: “It is weak, for if this hope [of gain] is removed, the love may be extinguished, or at least diminished. It is not pure, as it desires some return.”
But gradually, over long experience and many trials and failures, our love is purified. We begin to love God with what St. Bernard calls “filial love,” that is, as sons and daughters love their Father, for His own sake, because He is good and beautiful, trustworthy and true. This is more and more an unselfish love, indeed a self-forgetful love, for the more our hearts are occupied in loving God, the more they expand and take on the dimensions of His love. This is the love that regards our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. This is the love of great martyrs and saints.
Yet there is even a fourth stage of the growth of love in us. Saint Bernard simply calls it “pure love.” The characteristic of the fourth and most perfect stage of love is that we “learn to love ourselves for God’s sake. This is to love the self that God desires, to love God’s will for the self: and so it means the final purging of the will from self-aggrandizement and desire for control. It is ‘to be emptied out of oneself, to be brought almost to nothing’ (X. 27), to accept the reality of God as entirely definitive of one’s identity. The self has no other will than God’s. Its only prayer is: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Dr. Margaret Turek, Notes on Monastic Spirituality)
You may notice this is precisely the opposite of our culture’s present obsession with self-care and self-esteem. The wisdom of the world holds that we must love and provide for ourselves before we can love anybody else. So long as we continue to make the anxious cravings of our hearts the primary object of our concern, our love remains weak and imperfect. The wisdom of God, which is folly and a stumbling block to the world, but to us our salvation and our hope, is that if we are ever to learn to love ourselves in truth, we must first fall in love with God in a quite absolute way, such that we abandon everything to Him. In the beauty of His eyes, we will see ourselves reflected, and come to love ourselves there, as He loves us.
“This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” Yes, the ideal is high, and this is why many refuse. It is one thing to believe, another to surrender oneself to a love as demanding and all-consuming as this. But if we strive to advance in love and place our trust in Him, throwing ourselves confidently on His mercy as often as we fail, the Father looks on our feeble efforts with great tenderness and will soon lift us up to the heights of perfection. And the reward for which we strive is the greatest of all, the only reward any lover worth the name has ever sought: to possess the Beloved and to be possessed by Him forever.
Lord Jesus, in your Most Holy Name, grant that every one of us gathered here today in your Church may come to the wedding banquet clothed in the garment of pure love. May all of us, whom you have called, find the way to light, to love, to life.