Saying Yes to the Heavenly Feast
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
A few years ago Tony Campolo, a sociologist and professor from Eastern University, flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He tells the story of how he checked into his hotel and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.
He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in a back alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. Some heavy-set guy behind the counter comes over and asks, "What d'ya want?"
Tony eyes some donuts under a plastic cover and says, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."
As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes who have just finished with their night's work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing women. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway when he hears the woman next to him says to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replies, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?"
The first woman says, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, his heart turned. He sat and waited until all the women left, and then he asked the big guy behind the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"
"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"
"Because she just said that tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"
A big kind of smile crept over the chubby man’s cheeks. "That's a great idea!" he says, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a birthday party for her right here."
His wife comes out almost crying. "That's terrific," she says. "You know, Agnes is really a kind-hearted woman. She's always trying to help others and nobody does anything nice for her."
So they make their plans. Tony says he'll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the cook, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he'll make a cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He’s hung streamers and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorate the place from one end to the other. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed like every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. Prostitutes wall to wall, with Tony Campalo in the middle.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friends. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She's stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.
When Harry carries out the birthday cake with all the candles, Agnes totally loses it. She's sobbing and crying. Harry, who's not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Come on. Stop crying and blow out the candles!!!"
Agnes pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!" But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...if… is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away? I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home and show it to my mom. I'll be right back, honest."
She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it out. Everybody watches in stunned silence as the door closes behind her. Nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.
So Tony, being inspired by the Holy Spirit gets up on a chair and says, "What do you say that we pray together?"
And there in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, filled with prostitutes at 3:30 a.m, Tony Campolo offers a prayer for Agnes and all these prostitutes and the broken world that seeks after prostitutes. He prayed for God’s mercy and grace to come upon all of them.
When he's finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, "Hey, Campolo, you told me you were a professor. You never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning!!!"
Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, "No you don't! No you don’t! There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."
+ + +
Isn’t that what the Church should be all about? Celebrating life and seeing the good in all people! Lifting up those who are broken and in despair and offering them a path of healing! Inviting ALL people, no matter where they’ve been in life and no matter how they have fallen, and letting them know they are loved, they are special, and they are beloved in the eyes of God!
As we prepare for Christmas, we are celebrating the “Good News of Great Joy” which angels proclaimed to the shepherds. A “Savior is born!” The center of our Christian faith is all about celebrating this joyous news that a Savior has come and invited all of us into His feast in the Kingdom of Heaven!
It’s no wonder why our Lord Jesus Christ used the analogy of a royal celebration to describe the Kingdom of Heaven in today’s Gospel reading. This is the Gospel that is always read two weeks before Christmas, and it reminds us that God wants all people to understand they are invited into the heavenly feast in the Kingdom of Heaven; that there is no greater joy than to taste of this spiritual banquet, no greater fellowship than the love one experiences in this feast, an eternal happiness that will never fade away!
Christianity should never be seen as some joyless, cheerless, boring religion full of rules and regulations. The Good News of Jesus Christ is all about a joyous celebration – an experience and a relationship that transforms our lives.
Yet, today’s Gospel story not only tells us about God’s Kingdom as a celebration, but also warns us about the only thing that can prevent us from entering into this divine celebration – and that is ourselves! Jesus uses the analogy of a King inviting guests to a feast yet shows how each invited guest makes an excuse NOT to attend. The first is too consumed with his work and business. The second focuses on newly bought possessions. The third allows family to interfere with the King’s invitation. The excuses aren’t bad in and of themselves – work, pleasure, family – but each takes a priority over the invitation into the heavenly feast!
Christ teaches us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you!” For us to experience and enter into the greatest celebration of life, to partake in this never-ending, eternal and heavenly feast that begins here and now, we must accept His invitation! We must put aside all else that demands our time and say YES to the One who invites us! We must say YES to this Advent Season of preparing for a spiritual celebration of Christmas! We must say YES to our Lord’s invitation and allow nothing to stand between us and the eternal feast that awaits us!
Jesus Christ is inviting us to His heavenly banquet, starting with this upcoming Christmas Feast and continuing to offer a feast each and every day of our lives.
Agnes and the other prostitutes in Honolulu got a taste of what the heavenly feast is all about – a celebration of love and forgiveness and healing. We all are broken and lost in many ways, yet Christ invites us all to come and partake!
Will we say YES to our Lord’s invitation and enter into His eternal Joy!!!