Feast of Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Lectionary: 629

He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain
and showed me the holy city Jerusalem
coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal. It had a massive, high wall...

If you've been to Rome you know the word massive. Saint Peter's Basilica and many of the churches are built with enormous stones and enriched with statues of gigantic proportions. The doors of Saint John Lateran might be absurdly high but were the statues to become animated they would need very high doors to escape into the streets of Rome. 
Rome, of course, is the city of apostles and they are massively important in our Catholic tradition. 
While many Protestant churches bill themselves as apostolic, the Catholic churches claims a direct line of personal, physical contact from bishop to bishop back to the apostles Peter and Paul and Bartholomew. This apostolic succession has been maintained with each succeeding generation placing their hands on the heads of the next generation, thus ordaining them in the original spirit, words and gestures of Jesus. Despite the interference of rival popes and unworthy bishops, the chain is unbroken.  This apostolic succession also is massively important to Catholics; it represents the corporeality of the Incarnation of Jesus. His Church is not just a spiritual fellowship of friends; it is a corporation authorized to maintain his presence -- by way of the Eucharistic Presence -- until his Second Coming. 
While we appreciate the importance of spirituality, the Church is genetically suspicious of any movement which would divorce itself from the body while claiming to own the "true spirit." Dispirited bodies are dead; and disembodied spirits have never managed to persuade us they actually exist. They're probably only figments of the imaginative. But we can see, hear, touch, and smell living bodies; they are animated with life.
With all that being said, we can admit we know little of Saint Bartholomew. Even his name is uncertain and he may have been called Nathaniel. Tradition -- which is often reliable -- says he was martyred by flaying, which is particularly ghastly. His horrible image appears in Michelangelo's Last Judgement; the pallid face is said to be the artist's own, as he was weary of the project. 
He is remembered more fondly for the many hospitals and parishes that bear his name. His painful death gave him compassion for the sick and authority to heal the wounded. 
On this quiet summer day our liturgy invites us once again to thank God for the presence of our Church with all its flaws, blemishes and cancerous sins. A vessel of clay, it still contains the living Spirit of Jesus. 

Friday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

In a conversation with Veterans in the VA hospital, about freedom, I often like to conclude with two statements: 1) Freedom is a jealous god, abiding no other; and 2) you cannot distill the program.
Concerning the second remark, I remind the group of our penchant for distilling good things into small, intense pleasures: wine into brandy; poppy into heroin; coca into cocaine, cocaine into crack cocaine, spectator sports into highlights, novels into CliffsNotes, marriage into one-night hookups, and so forth. Addicts often come out of rehab treatment thinking, "I'll just not drink." Or, "I'll just go to the meetings." Or, "I'll move to another state." Or, "I need a girlfriend to help me."
Invariably, they return to treatment after slipping back into addiction. Living well requires a deep conversion of the mind/heart, and a willingness to do whatever it takes. No habit, no relationship, no job, no self-image can be placed before sobriety. Or, as I prefer, freedom.
Which brings me to the first statement, Freedom is a jealous god. Or, as Jesus says in today's gospel, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."
Or, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, "Half measures availed us nothing."
Jesus' complete response to the scholar of the law demonstrates my point about distillation. Anyone who thinks that being totally consumed with God while ignoring the needs and demands of others has attempted to distill the gospel. Likewise, you cannot love your neighbor without a deep, abiding love of God. 
There is no simple formula for salvation and Jesus' reply to "Which commandment...?" -- does not satisfy the limits they imposed on him. The Truth is deep, mysterious, and complex. If we cannot always explain it in simple aphorisms, we must live within it. 

Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

A second time he sent other servants, saying,
'Tell those invited: "Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast."'

Today's memorial feastday, honoring the Queenship of Mary -- her "coronation" -- falls on the octave of the solemn feast of the Assumption. It completes the week of celebration which we can imagine occurs in Heaven. It is well beyond mortal sight but within our vision of faith. As Mary's devotees not yet raised from the dead, we are on the farthest edges of the vast crowd that mill around the coronation altar. If we hear anything it's our songs of praise in this distant land; it's not angelic or saintly shouts of exultation. We can see only the tinsel tiaras and awkward crowns we place upon our statues of the Virgin. But we believe that the Virgin has been crowned in the very presence of Almighty God. There is the thrill of being there, communicated by faith.
We also celebrate Mary's coronation with the fifth of the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary. Franciscans call our seven-decade chaplet not a rosary but a "Crown," for the final mystery of that series honors both her Assumption and Coronation.
This weekday Mass will be, in most Catholic churches, a quiet event. Perhaps those parishes which are named "The Queenship of Mary" might make a bigger event of it. (A google search finds three in the United States.)
Finally, this octave event fits handily with the beginnings of today's gospel. The announcement of a wedding comes in the form of an invitation, "Come to the feast!"
Mary's coronation, as the final mystery of the rosary, invites us to contemplate what  must happen next -- the Judgement, and the Bliss. Our faith promises a Day of Reckoning and we must  shudder at the thought. But it also promises Communion with the Saints and we rejoice in the thought. In that day we will join in the gladness of eternity, grateful that what we have heard and expected has come to pass.
Where she has gone, we hope to follow.

Memorial of Saint Pius X, Pope

Going out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.'

I find this story of the vineyard owner and his day workers endlessly fascinating. If it's not a story about capitalism and labor-management relations, it certainly reminds us of the disparities of power in human affairs. Regardless of political structures and economic systems with their philosophical foundations, those inequities will always persist. They fall under the general heading of Original Sin.
In today's story the landowner promises, "I will give you what is just." By the end of the day the workers seriously doubt his word. I don't believe this is a story about a just employer, nor do I think Jesus recommends this fellow as an icon of God the Father.
But it does remind us of God's sovereign authority; and of our inevitable, even necessary, challenge of that authority. Created in God's image, with a divine appetite for power and autonomy, we chafe under the saddle of obedience. Which of us has not secretly agreed with Milton's Satan, "It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven?"
This landowner is not at all phased by his workers' challenge. He couldn't care less. Although he says to one man, " I am not cheating you." that is only Saint Matthew's literary device to give voice to the owner's private thought. He owes no explanation to the rioters and he gives none. Nor does he have a spokesman who might be privy to his thoughts. There is no middleman who might put a different spin on the appearance of unfairness.
This parable is about God's supreme authority and our limited vision. We can no more comprehend God's justice and mercy than the first day laborers can be satisfied with their pay.
No doubt every ruler who ever appeared -- institutional or charismatic -- promised both justice and mercy to his subjects. They would punish the wicked, regardless of their social standing and wealth. They would show mercy to the deserving, even the least among them. Every government, regardless of its structure or philosophy, gained some legitimacy by its promises of justice and mercy. Invariably the mass of people waited -- and were disappointed. We are not capable of both.
Humans govern with hard justice or soft mercy but cannot manage both.
Only God can do both in the same action. If it sometimes happens in human affairs, it is certainly a moment of Grace, a moment when the Holy Spirit (who is the very Presence of God) guided the process and final decision, however briefly. It is nothing we can sustain.

"...we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." Saint Peter reminds us. We are duty bound as human beings and as Christians to keep trying to build such a system, with the confident hope that, on the last day, God's justice and mercy -- that incomparable blend -- will be revealed.

Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

The angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth in Ophrah
that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite.
While his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press
to save it from the Midianites,
the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said,
"The LORD is with you, O champion!"

Leadership appears from two quite different sources. Every institution has its own way of selecting and empowering its leaders; and their first duty is to protect and promote the institution. But leaders may also appear from unexpected sources; they arise charismatically, empowered by their own personal traits of energy, intelligence, charm, and vision.

Ancient institutions often relied on the sons of their rulers to provide the next generation of leadership. If these men demonstrated the capacity to take charge of their father’s followers, and could ward off challengers, the people were content to obey a man with a familiar name and similar features. In many cases, even if the present king was not quite up to the challenge, the institution seemed to sustain itself with everyone’s compliance despite the ruler’s incompetence. Any ruler is better than the chaos and violence of no ruler.
More recent institutions have developed democratic ways to select their leaders from a broader pool of talent, but the old ruling families still have cachet.

But always there are charismatic individuals who appear with neither lineage nor credentials to challenge the institutions and their leaders. When the old ways no longer serve the new times, old institutions, fixed on their hoary traditions, collapse for lack of interest. A new generation of leaders, energetic, bold, visionary and talented, compete in a power vacuum until they have established their own institutions with new laws, hierarchical structures, and customs.
Gideon was a charismatic leader. A ferocious warrior, capable ruler, attractive personality, the oppressed Hebrews rallied to his call and fought with him against the Midian overlords. (Unfortunately, he had far too many sons by too many wives and none could succeed him; especially after the meanest, most unscrupulous of them murdered all of his siblings.) 
In today’s first reading we hear the story of Gideon’s ascendance. One of the least of his brothers in a family of no consequence, he could not be handed leadership by the old traditions. But the moment was right, and the Lord inspired the people to follow him into battle and conquest.
The lesson for us? We sometimes detect charismatic leadership among our bishops and popes, but we should not expect to find it there. Their job is to preserve the old ways against innovation. If they succeed, they will have allowed the new to find its roots in the ancient traditions, while the old regains some of its spirit under a not unfamiliar form.
I think of Pope Saint John Paul II and his willingness to promote (and canonize) Saint Faustina with her updated image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Just when the Vatican II generation thought the Sacred Heart had faded away, it reappeared brilliantly under the patriotic colors of red, white and blue. Faustina had the inspired vision, John Paul had the authority to place the new icon before the entire Catholic Church.
A second lesson: Don’t be surprised or scandalized by religious turbulence. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to purify and renew the Church, despite the best efforts of her priests. 

Monday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

The children of Israel offended the LORD by serving the Baals. Abandoning the LORD, the God of their fathers, who led them out of the land of Egypt, they followed the other gods of the various nations around them, and by their worship of these gods provoked the LORD.

In his book, God in Search of Man, the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Joseph Abraham Heschel wrote,
"It is strange that modern students of religion fail to realize the constant necessity for the protest against polytheism. The idea of unity is not only one upon which the ultimate justification of philosophical, ethical and religious universalism depends, but also one which is still beyond the grasp of most people.

Catholicism is a universalist religion; we claim to have a message for all people regardless of caste, culture, race, gender or sexual preference. Our belief in the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist would appeal equally to Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, if we were to show its beauty to them.
But monotheism is very demanding and polytheism -- though self-contradictory and illogical -- is more appealing. If we claim to love the One and Only God we still give the devil his due.
Recently I was reminded that certain workers are paid exorbitant amounts of money, luxurious perks, extended vacations and golden parachutes because the system works that way. If one corporation refuses to pay that CEO too much, another corporation will hire them. "The System," sometimes called, "The Economy," requires it. Justice, Mercy, Equality and Fraternity may argue against it but Economy, like the Greek Zeus or the Roman Jupiter, overrules a pantheon of other gods. Not to mention Jesus Christ, the crucified carpenter's son.
Today's gospel about the young man who sought Jesus' advice ends with understated tragedy, "When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad,for he had many possessions." Economy cancelled any thought of following the Lord. He could not worship God and Mammon.
In this predicament, Jesus allowed us to "render to Caesar what is Caesar's," so long as we live in this world. But Caesar will amass all his treasures, clutching them tightly as he falls into the abyss. The saved are those who surrender their wealth to follow the Lord.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?

"If you want peace, work for justice." Pope Paul VI urged the United Nations. Since that New Years Day in 1972, the imbalance of wealth and poverty has only worsened throughout the world. If nations are not presently making war against one another, they cannot suppress the restive populations who suffer the violence of poverty. Mindless, irrational, futile terrorism spreads from slum to slum through megacities even as the powerful, paralyzed by satisfaction, wring their worried hands. Their peace is prosperity for a few and scarcity for the majority.
"Peace! Peace! There is no peace!" the prophet Jeremiah cried as Jerusalem suffered yet another siege. In today's first reading we hear a common complaint about the Lord's prophet,
"...he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them."
The king and his counselors want control of every authoritative voice in city. Religious authorities should support the government and the war effort. Criticism is unpatriotic, even when it speaks an uncomfortable truth.They cannot comprehend why the Lord has abandoned them. They cannot suppose the Gospel might oppose their rule. 

We might feel that "the angry god of the Old Testament" has been superannuated. We might dismiss their jeremiads until we realize why the prophets railed against the city. Jerusalem was supposed to be a holy city. There should be no homeless orphans, abandoned widows, or unwelcome aliens. Given the superabundant providence of God, his people would share and share alike as they had shared manna in the desert. No one would go hungry; no one would have too much; all would have enough. If they competed it was in generosity, not in accumulating stuff.
But Jerusalem had proven to be like any other city; and Judah and Israel were nations like any other. Their religion had no visible effect on their economy or their social life. The wealthy dismissed the majority as unworthy of their attention, while the poor ate the crumbs that fell from aristocratic tables. Their piety went no farther than halfhearted displays of ostentation. Why would they not suffer the fate of other cities and nations, disappearing under the wash of history?
Many centuries later, Jesus' criticism of that religious tradition which supported corrupt government authorities was scathing.
You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood. Thus, you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets;
In the twenty-first century it is easy to suppose we are different from our ancestors. Surely we are not the children of those who murdered the prophets. If geography and time have not set us apart from them, technological advances, economic developments, and cultural evolution have created an impassable barrier between us and our ancestors. Recently, during the revolution (whichever you prefer) we were created out of nothing and the past lost its relevanceOur universe is discontinuous with that of nineteenth century slave owners and twentieth century cold warriors. Can ethical decisions of the post-atomic, computer/social media/twitter age compare with those of our ancestors? Are we not entirely unrelated to the past?
But we still build tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous. We still celebrate the virtue of our heroic ancestors and dismiss their injustices. The same immigrants are still unwelcome as undocumented aliens, orphans are aborted and divorce has created a whole new class of "widows." We are only a nation like other nations with no particular claim on God.
We still need salvation which comes only from the One who warns us,
I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three....