Wisdom has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She calls from the highest places in the town, "You that are simple, turn in here! Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and live."
We’ll be looking today at this invitation from the figure the Bible calls Wisdom, and at the similar but different invitation from Jesus. This is the third in a series of sermons using our summer book by Henri Nouwen, and before we start talking about invitation, let me remind you that after Mass there’s a discussion of the book over in the education area. We’ll do that again next week as well. But for the moment let’s look at this Proverbs lesson about Wisdom.
Wisdom, in the Old Testament, develops into a personified figure, a woman who is an image for aspects of God. The early Christians quickly realized that what the Bible said about Lady Wisdom was the same thing they were discovering to be true about Jesus, and so both St. Paul and St. Matthew use the term Wisdom in describing him: Christ the Wisdom of God, Paul says.
Now in this Proverbs reading, notice how proactive Lady Wisdom is. All the preparation for the meal is hers. She is the hostess. She is searching for guests. She is calling out to us to come to the table. It’s all her. And this is true: God’s invitation to come to the Table is his to give. Jesus just takes that for granted as he describes himself in today’s reading from John. What we see, though, is that while that invitation from Wisdom was good and gracious, what Jesus is inviting us into goes much further. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…. Just as I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate.
Isn’t that interesting, that phrase: not like that which your ancestors ate. Why does he mention that? Well, look at what Jesus says about what it does to us not just to show up at the Table, but to internalize his presence, to consume his reality: if we eat him, he says, we live because of him, we abide in him, we feed on him. And Nouwen points out that this piece of the Eucharistic experience actually requires an invitation from us. We think of Jesus proactively inviting us to his table, like Wisdom did, and offering us an encounter that is joyful or comforting or whatever, but the temptation is to leave it where Proverbs left it, where our ancestors left it: God invited me. Wasn’t that lovely? Now let’s go to brunch.
Nouwen points out that after Jesus invites us to his table, it’s then on us to invite Jesus to stay with us, day by day. When we invite Jesus in, the fruits of the sacrament multiply and we begin to belong to him in daily life. But if we don’t invite Jesus to stay with us, to continue his presence throughout the next hours and days until we come to his Table again, it’s all too easy to let the extraordinary gift he gives us at Mass slip away.
And what will inevitably happen then, if we do not invite Jesus into our lives after he invites us to the Table, is that we will move on to other things to abide in. We will leave Jesus to one side until we’re in church again, and try to feed on other things, to live because of other things. You know those things as well as I do. What things other than Jesus do people live because of? What do we abide in? What do we feed on?
The obvious answers are that we try to nourish ourselves with, and live for temporary things, the things our ancestors ate: family, a comfortable life, achieving your goals, romance. Wilier answers have a veneer of spirituality: I want to feed on having a balanced life, I want to feed on being kind, I want to abide in becoming my authentic self, I want to live for the growth goals I have set.
Or what most of us fall for, the wiliest answer of all, is an unintentional mix that just happens without our even being conscious of it: "I'm going to abide in my family while being fed by my church involvement and my personal quest for authenticity, while also living for my career." Or fill in the blanks with whatever stuff you think about all day. If you have not consciously chosen not to live that way, you are probably living that way.
And this can be very deceptive, because it feeds the mind and the emotions, feeds the need for relationships and purpose and a sense of something meaningful. It keeps you busy enough that you may not even notice what’s missing. But none of that, none of it, actually feeds the thing Nouwen is talking about in his book or Jesus is talking about in this reading. And that's why Jesus says this difficult sentence, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."
Be offended by that if you like, but Jesus isn’t talking about ordinary life. You can have a wonderful, fulfilling ordinary life without eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood. Jesus is talking about something different, about the possibility to have the life of God himself in you. God designed into each of us a human capacity for this almost inconceivable gift of union with God in Christ, and that gift either is alive in us or it isn’t. Only God can cause it to be born, and only God can feed it with himself and thus keep it alive.
This is why Jesus' offering is so vital. The invitation Wisdom gives in the first reading is beautiful. She is feeding us something wholesome, nourishing, but not herself. But Jesus doesn’t hold back; he addresses our deepest possible need. He gives himself. This is just staggering generosity. He has to use these metaphors of eating, drinking, consuming him, because nothing else is intimate and concrete enough. God doesn't want just to inspire us or enhance us or comfort us. He wants union. But he will never force it on us. He respects us too much for that. He wants union, but we have to invite him.
Nouwen in his chapter "Inviting the Stranger" writes: “Our life is filled with good advice, helpful ideas, wonderful perspectives, but they are simply added to the many other ideas and perspectives… with such an information overload, even the most significant encounters can be reduced to ‘something interesting’ among many other interesting things …. Jesus is a very interesting person; his words are full of wisdom. His presence is heart-warming. But do we want him to come to know us behind the walls of our most intimate life? … The Eucharist requires this invitation. Having listened to Jesus’ word, we have to be able to say more than ‘this is interesting!’ We have to dare to say “I trust you. I entrust myself, with all my being, body, mind and soul to you… I want you to become my most intimate friend…I want to come to know you… as the companion of my soul.”
Nouwen concludes: “Jesus wants to be invited. Without an invitation, he will go on to other places… Unless we invite him, he will always remain a stranger, possibly a very attractive, intelligent stranger… but a stranger nonetheless.”
Once you’ve left Mass, do you start trying to abide in a mix of interesting things you never even really decided to live for? Are you having an interesting moment at church and then getting on with the rest of your day? What would happen if you came to this Table where Jesus himself has invited you, and then invited Jesus in turn to do what he wants with your life, to know you completely, to be a companion in every hour of your day? As Nouwen says, Jesus wants to be invited, but he does wait to be invited.