PEOPLE USUALLY THING of the Holy Mysteries according to the ways they have experienced them in churches which they have attended. Western Christians, for example, who are used to seeing a few drops of water poured on a baby’s head in baptism, may be astounded to see a baby fully immersed at an Eastern Christian baptism.
The Scriptures contain a number of references to the rites which we call Holy Mysteries, but sometimes these references are not as obvious to us as they were to the first-century readers for whom they were written.
St Paul wrote two epistles to the first Christians in Corinth which have become part of the New Testament. The Corinthian believers were divided among themselves over rival teachers and practices. Before addressing any of these issues, he reminded the Corinthians of their baptism! The relationship we have with God in Christ should be our basis for dealing with any practical matters. What may surprise us is that he makes no mention of water at all, or even of baptism in the name of the Trinity. Rather he emphasized the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the time of the apostles, Christian initiation already included a rite for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles records that, ever before the conversion of St Paul to Christ, baptism was not considered complete until the Spirit had been given. We read in Acts 8 how Philip, a deacon, preached the Gospel in Samaria and baptized many people there. The passage continues: “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).
The Samaritans’ baptism was not a complete Christian initiation until they received the Holy Spirit. The rite which the apostles employed was prayer, with the laying-on of hands.
St Paul, on the other hand, describes the bestowal of the Spirit in terms of anointing and sealing: “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22). The anointing was a visible mark, attesting that the new believer belonged to Christ. This bestowal of the Spirit is what we call the Mystery of Chrismation.
The second image in this brief description is the mention of the Holy Spirit as a kind of “Deposit” or down-payment, guaranteeing the divinizing presence of the Spirit in us. This presence would be fulfilled in the life of the world to come, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
The Wedding Banquet
Even more sacramental allusions are found in the image of the wedding banquet of the king’s son. This portrayal of a future when God is all in all is at the heart of Christ’s parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). A similar parable is found in Luke 14:15-24. In Luke Christ tells this parable in response to this praise of the kingdom to come by one of His hearers, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15).
In Matthew, this feast is described as celebrating the union of the king’s son with his bride, which represents the.Messiah becoming one with his people. It is the long-awaited union of the Lord and His beloved. St John Chrysostom explains the wedding imagery in this parable and connects it with similar expressions in other Scriptures.: “You may ask, ‘Why is it called a marriage?’ – That you may learn God’s tender care, His yearning toward us, the cheerfulness of it. There is no sorrow there: all things are filled with spiritual joy. This is why John also calls Him a bridegroom and Paul says, ‘I have espoused you to one husband’ and ‘This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”
Those who are invited, however, do not see the eternal significance of this event. They are busy with the things of this age – their view of reality was limited to their business interests. Their short-sightedness cost them everything and others were invited in their place. In Luke, even family life is considered a poor excuse for ignoring the invitation to the king’s banquet.
The setting of this parable in Matthew gives us a key to its meaning. The Lord has just entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He teaches using three parables against the Jewish leaders: the parables of the two sons, the vineyard tenants and the wedding banquet. Each of them features an ungrateful and unresponsive reply to the master’s call.
The parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) concludes with this admonition: “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (v. 32). This reference to John the Forerunner points to the coming of the Messiah as the event which people were called to acknowledge and to which they refused to respond. Official religious leaders will be replaced by prostitutes and the Jewish people by Gentiles in the Messianic age which has already begun.
Matthew adds a final scene describing the king welcoming his new guests to the banquet. One of the guests has come without a wedding garment. The parable ends with this man too losing his place at the table. Here Matthew has made the parable apply to us and the sacramental life to which we have been admitted. Having accepted Christ, we are invited to the table, provided that we have preserved the baptismal garment with which we were clothed. If it has been sullied, it may be laundered by repentance. But if we have not repented, we too shall lose our place at the table.