Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Homily I Would Have Given for St. Bartholomew's Day

It’s a presumption, I know, as a layperson, but sometimes the discourse is such that attempts at charitable interpretation are hopeless, and the best preservation of grace and sanity lies in the construction of an alternate narrative.

St. Bartholomew, or Nathaniel (as he is called in the Gospel of John) was a friend of St Philip.  According to popular legend, he evangelized Asia Minor, parts of India, and Greater Armenia (the region which is today occupied by Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Northern Iran). While in this region, he is said to have converted a local king and many of his subjects, and subsequently been flayed alive for his efforts—a martyrdom which is depicted in many works of art.

The Church gives us indications of how to think about St. Bartholomew on this feast: indications in the propers of the Mass and the readings.  The first reading from Revelation shows us “the holy city Jerusalem”—not the earthly city, which St. John and St. Bartholomew knew well, but the City of Heaven.  It is an odd image, to the modern mind.  We often think of the city as a place of immorality, poverty, artificiality, etc., in contrast to the beauty and freedom of the country.  But, while cities have always had those downfalls, they were for much of human history the best places to live, where human beings could enjoy comparative protection from the natural variability of the weather and the seasons.  Equally importantly, the city was a place where human beings could enjoy the society of their fellow human beings.  For much of human history, then, the city was the place to be if you wanted to flourish economically or intellectually.  At its best, the city gave writers from Aristotle to Aquinas an image, an image which they used to suggest a society of virtuous men, bonded together in friendship, a friendship that was directed toward the virtuous pursuit of the common good, the thing that is good for everybody, the thing that everybody ideally would have: namely, the contemplation of God and ultimately, the vision of Him face to face.

That’s what the city in Revelation represents: a community of friends all directed towards their divine Lover, God himself.  And by calling this city “the heavenly Jerusalem” John suggests a continuity between this God-ordered city called heaven, and the institutions we know on earth.  Just as the everyday Jerusalem had gates for trade and travel, so the heavenly Jerusalem will have gates—but gates by which no one who has entered will ever seek to leave.  Just as twelve men were (indirectly) founders of the earthly Jerusalem, and enabled all their mortal descendants to enter into it; so twelve apostles founded the heavenly Jerusalem, and enable all of their spiritual descendants—all those who hear the Gospel—all of us—to enter it.

St. Bartholomew, then, like the other apostles, is a kind of conduit, a drain (if I may use the image!) for God’s grace to flow down onto us.  The one saying we have from Jesus about Bartholomew (or Nathaniel) calls him “an Israelite without duplicity” or “without guile.”  Guile, the mindset where you’re always thinking of keeping your own mental advantage over others, gets in the way of recognizing Jesus.  It’s not likely that Bartholomew would have recognized Jesus as “the Son of God” if he had been overthinking the situation, making excuses for how Jesus could have known where he was.  But St. Bartholomew’s lack of guile meant that he not only recognized Jesus, but was able to bring him to others.  St. Bartholomew had, in other words, a disposition to speak the good news of Christ directly, without watering it down or putting his own spin on things.  Compare that to what we often here these days—from the news, the media, politicians, the entertainment industry—even, sadly, sometimes from the pulpit—and you’ll appreciate what an amazing and wonderful thing it is, for a preacher to be, like St. Bartholomew, “without guile,” to be (again, pardon the image!) an unclogged drainpipe.

But there is another “drainpipe” or “conduit” (if you will) mentioned in the propers for today’s Mass.  The collect refers to it.  During the collect we pray: “Strengthen in us, O Lord, the faith, by which the blessed Apostle Bartholomew clung wholeheartedly to your Son, and grant that through the help of his prayers your Church may become for all the nations the sacrament of salvation.”

Here the Church, still governed by the bishops, the descendants of St. Bartholomew and the other apostles, is described as the new conduit, the “sacrament” that brings salvation to all the nations, just as St. Bartholomew and his fellow apostles aimed to do.  We do this, as St. Bartholomew did, by living as Christians in the world, but also by preaching of the coming of Jesus, and of our eventual life with him in the heavenly city.  We preach this not standing on a street corner (at least, not necessarily)—but by being ready and indeed eager to speak of the faith to everyone whom we meet—yes, even if they end up flaying us alive (fortunately, in our country, at least for now, the flaying is usually only figurative).

And the really good news that we should be sharing with everyone is that we don’t have to wait for heaven before we can begin our contemplation of Jesus, and our friendship with the saints.  We get a taste of these things right here and now.  The post-Communion prayer says: “May the pledge of eternal salvation which we have received ... bring us help for this present life, and for that which is to come.”  The “pledge of eternal salvation” here isn’t the Church, or some promise handed down from St. Bartholomew and company—it’s the Holy Eucharist, Jesus Christ the God-Man Himself, under the appearances of bread and wine, which—in just a few moments—those of you who are properly disposed, and in the state of grace, having been to Confession recently—will come up here to receive.

This is what the apostles and martyrs died for: not just the very good news that God became Man, and died for us, but the even better news, that He loved us so much that He could not leave us—He cannot wait until we reached His heavenly city—but He still comes down, as He came down to the Jews, and reaffirms the title the Jewish prophets gave Him: Emmanuel, God with usThis is the good news that the world needs to know—this is the glory of the heavenly city, so splendid that its light reaches down to shine on us, even here, on earth.  This is, in the words of today’s psalm, “the glorious splendor of [the] Kingdom” of God, which His friends—St. Bartholomew and, it is to be hoped, you and I, following in his steps, make known to all the world, so that we may all meet each other at last, as friends, in that heavenly and eternal Jerusalem, where together we will contemplate the face of God.

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