Celebrating Common Humanity

Celebrating Common Humanity

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year. fr John O’Connor helps us to see how Jesus Christ restores human beings to an original unity.

In the past few years a number of my family have got married, so I have heard a great deal recently about wedding invitations! It certainly can be a complicated business. Chief among the complications is the question of whom to invite and whom not to invite. Pretty much everyone realises that couples cannot invite everyone they would like to, that couples are forced to make choices and have to draw the line somewhere. And most people realise that many couples even agonise over this, going to great effort to do best they can.

A wedding is not simply a personal matter between two people. There are dimensions that go beyond the couple. For Christians, when two people commit themselves to each other in marriage, they show in a powerful way something of the original unity of the human race, the unity we are all called to build up.

Our world, though, is divided in so many ways: between rich and poor, between people of different nations and creeds and races, and because of enmity and antagonism. We have a certain tendency towards separation, but to give way to this is to lose sight that we are by nature one, that we all share a common humanity and we all share in a common story.

In the 17th century the Christian poet John Donne famously expressed this with great power in one of his meditations:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

For Donne, because there is a link between us all, because we all partake in a common humanity and in a common story, that even when a complete stranger dies, a part of each of us dies too. So the bell tolling the death of a stranger in a certain sense tolls for each one of us. The bell tolls, the bell laments, because when someone dies a separation has taken place; not a separation through deliberate withdrawal or enmity, but a profound separation that can only be overcome by the love of God, since only God can overcome death.

So two people binding themselves together in marriage is an act that works against our tendency to separate from each other, an act that works towards reconstituting the original unity of the human race. In the context of the parable of the wedding feast, to refuse to come to the wedding is to choose a life of separation over a life where we endeavour to create unity. It is a refusal to take the opportunity offered to us by the occasion where two people unite themselves together. It is a refusal to work to strengthen that unity, both in the lives of the couple themselves and in the world that surrounds both them and us all.

There is so much about us that calls us to unity. It’s certainly not restricted to wedding invitations! Modern technology offers many occasions to reach out to one another. We can now speak to one another and even see one another across oceans. But the phone and the computer screen can all too easily become a substitute for genuine encounter and genuine unity. Indeed, more and more people suffer loneliness despite the internet and social media, despite levels of health care and social services far greater than what our ancestors had.

There can, however, be no substitute for genuine friendship and authentic encounter. And so, as disciples of Christ, our task, our mission, is to help reunite the world. Our task and mission is nothing less than to work so that by the grace of God isolated individuals are transformed into brothers and sisters.

In the parable of the wedding feast, the king stands for God the Father, and the son of the king stands for Jesus Christ, who is the bridegroom. Here Christ, like a bridegroom entering into marriage, is restoring our original unity, overcoming what separates us. He is the source of true unity.

And so who would want to say no to that wedding invitation? Well, let’s put it like this. Every time we respond to Christ’s call in our daily lives we say yes to the wedding invitation. It might not involve a big feast or dancing. But it always involves something to be celebrated.

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10 | Philippians 4:12-14,19-20 | Matthew 22:1-14

Fr John O'Connor is Regent of Studies of the English Province and Regent of Blackfriars, Oxford.