All Saints Benhilton

September 1st 2002

The Wedding Garment

 

And now, as they say, for something quite different a sermon largely in verse!

The poem which will form the greater part of this morning's sermon was written, by someone called Charles Williams.

First a word about the man himself. Charles Walter Stansby Williams was born in 1886 and died in 1945. He's probably best known, as a leading member of the Oxford literary group, the "Inklings", whose chief figures were C. S. Lewis and J. R. R Tolkien. He was, however, a figure of enormous interest in his own right: a prolific author of plays, fantasy novels (strikingly different in kind from those of his friends), poetry, theology, biography and criticism. He worked nearly all his life for the Oxford University Press, also lecturing extensively on English literature for evening institutes and latterly for Oxford University.

A devout Christian, he was perhaps the most original lay theologian of the century (his chief books in this field being The Descent of the Dove a history of the Holy Spirit in the Church written in 1939, and He Came Down From Heaven (1938). Above all, he was passionately interested in the ways in which romantic love can be a key to understanding our relationship with God.

Next, let me remind you about the Parable of the Wedding Garment, upon which the poem is based. In St Matthew's Gospel this parable is a sequel to the Parable of the Great Feast. They may originally have been two quite separate parables. Whether they were so or not, the meaning of the two components is quite simple. In the first part Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a King who made a great feast and invited many guests; but one and all of them made excuses why they couldn't come. So the King ordered his servants to go out to the street corners and invite everyone they could see. This they did and the banquet hall was full of guests.

That's how Part One ends. Its two messages are that our entry to the Kingdom of God depends in the first place on our being invited by God the initiative rests with him to invite us, and no possible merit on our part gives us any right to receive an invitation. The second message is that the invitation has got to be taken up and acted upon by us: it's no season-ticket or passport for us to carry around and use just when we feel like it. The invitation is up to God; the response requires our co-operation.

Part Two of the parable tells us about an invitee to the banquet who imagined that the mere fact that he'd received an invitation and responded to it, meant that it just didn't matter how he presented himself at the Banquet.

We've all come across people who call themselves Christians but imagine that turning up at church is all that God requires of them. They may spend their lives cheating, committing adultery, betraying their friends and abusing their children just so long as they are in their usual pew on Sunday.

Of course they are mistaken. Being invited to the Lord's Supper should involve taking at least as much trouble as one would on any other important occasion. The Prayer Book taking its cue from the parable tells us that we are to "come holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast, in the marriage-garment required by God in holy Scripture, and be received as worthy partakers of that holy Table".

God's inviting you and me to his Table is the very opposite of "just come as you are". It's different, of course, when a sinful soul first turns to Jesus then "it doesn't matter how bad you are, just come" is the Gospel message. Don't wait till you're good enough or you'll wait for ever."

But "come just as you are" emphatically doesn't apply to those who have already been accepted as guests at our Lord's table. Regular communicants must take every care to fulfil any requirements our Host may lay upon us.. Charles Williams, in this amusing but profound poem, describes a Guest who imagined that his close acquaintance with his Host, the Prince Immanuel (who is of course Jesus), would excuse him from complying with the wishes and conditions which his Host had so clearly expressed on his invitation-card.

Remember, "God is easy to please but hard to satisfy!" That Guest was in for a shock, as you will now hear:

 

THE WEDDING GARMENT

by Charles Williams

 
The Prince Immanuel1 gave a ball:
Cards, adequately sent to all
Who by the smallest kind of claim
Were known to royalty by name,
Held, red on white, the neat express
Instruction printed: Fancy Dress.
Within Earth's town there chanced to be
A gentleman of quality,
Whose table, delicately decked,
Centred at times the Court's elect;
There Under-Secretaries dined,
Gold Sticks in Waiting spoke their mind,
Or through the smoke of their cigars
Discussed the taxes and the wars,
And ran administrations down,
But always blessed the Triune Crown2.
The ball drew near; the evening came.
Our lordling, conscious of his name,
Retained particular distaste
For dressing-up, and half-effaced,
By a subjective sleight of eye
Objectionable objectivity
The card's direction. "I long since
Have been familiar with the Prince
At public meetings and bazaars,
And even ridden in his cars,"
He thought; "his Highness will excuse
A freedom, knowing that I use
Always my motto to obey
Egomet semper3 : I alway."
Neatly and shiningly achieved4
In evening dress, his car received
His figure, masked but otherwise
Completely in his usual guise.
Behold, the Palace; and the guest
Approached the Door among the rest.
The Great Hall opened: at his side
A voice breathed: "Pardon, sir." He spied,
Half turned, a footman. "Sir, your card
Dare I request? This Door is barred
To all if not in fancy dress."
"Nonsense." "Your card, sir!" "I confess
I have not strictly . . . an old friend . . .
His Highness . . .come, let me ascend.
My family has always been
In its own exquisite habit seen.
 
What, argue?" Dropping rays of light
The footman uttered: "Sir, tonight
Is strictly kept as strictly given;
The fair equivalents of heaven
Exhibit at our lord's desire
Their other selves, and all require
Virtues and beauties not their own
Ere genuflecting at the Throne.
Sir, by your leave.!" "But - " "Look and see."
The footman's blazing livery
In half-withdrawal5 left the throng
Clear to his eyes. He saw along
The Great Hall and the Heavenly Stair
One blaze of glorious changes there.
Cloaks, brooches, decorations, swords,
Jewels - every virtue that affords
(By dispensation of the Throne)
Beauty to wearers not their own.
This guest his brother's courage wore
That, his wife's zeal, while, just before,
She in his steady patience shone;
There a young lover had put on
The fine integrity of sense
His mistress used; magnificence
A father borrowed of his son,
Who was not there ashamed to don
His father's wise economy.
No he or she was he or she
Merely: no single being dared,
Except the Angels of the Guard,
Come without other kind of dress
Than his poor life had to profess,
And yet those very robes were shown,
When from preserval as his own
Into another's glory given,
Bright ambiguities of heaven.
Below, each change was manifest;
Above, the Prince received each guest,
Smiling. Our lordling gazed; in vain
He at the footman glanced again.
He had his own; his own was all
But that permitted at the Ball.
The darkness creeping down the street
Received his virtuous shining feet;
And, courteous as such beings are,
The Angels bowed him to his car.

NOTES

  1. Prince Immanuel: Jesus Christ. See Matthew 1:23
  2. blessed the Triune Crown: worshipped the Trinity
  3. "Egomet semper" : (approx.) "I always strive to be just myself"
  4. achieved: attired
  5. half-withdrawal: i.e. he stood to one side

 

 

 

 

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