The Feast of St. Bartholomew
[Scripture Readings: Rev 21:9b-14; Jn 1:45-51]
In Michaelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Jesus stands in the center of the mural as judge of the living and the dead. Christ’s right hand is raised above his head, about to come down in final judgment. Mary is sitting at his right, her head turned away to avoid seeing the fall of the damned. Her lips are closed because the time of intercession has ended. Two martyrs who suffered excruciating deaths are sitting on clouds by Jesus’ feet. St. Lawrence who was roasted to death on a gridiron is on one side; and St. Bartholomew who was skinned alive is on the other side. He holds the skinning knife firmly in one hand, and his own severed skin, complete from head to toe, hangs loosely from his other hand. The homely face on the drooping bodiless skin is Michaelangelo’s own self-portrait. Perhaps it was his way of identifying with St. Bartholomew, a wish that he could imitate this apostle’s courageous love for Christ.
Down the centuries the people of the Church have shown a sense of humor by invoking St. Bartholomew as the patron of butchers, leather-workers, tanners, shoemakers, bookbinders, furriers, and, for some mysterious reason, of Florentine salt and cheese merchants! Sometimes his intercession is sought to cure nervous disorders and twitchings of the skin.
How did Bartholomew, also known as Nathanael, find the strength not only to give the shirt off his back when persecutors took away his cloak, but even to give the skin off his back? It all began the day he was resting under a fig tree when his friend, Philip, rushed up to him and breathlessly said, “We have found him of whom Moses wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael, who lived in Cana only nine miles away, knowingly replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” His skepticism was justified, because the people of Nazareth were the first who wanted to kill Jesus, intending to cast him off a high cliff.
The beginning of Nathanael’s courage was Christian friendship, the invitation by Philip to “Come and see.” Philip had seen “Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.” Nathanael came and found much more. He saw Jesus “The Son of God, King of Israel.” Each helped the other draw nearer to Christ. Each grew by his friend’s faith. The second source of Nathanael’s fortitude was that lofty word of encouragement, that unique affirmation by Christ, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Nathanael received a compliment unlike any other, one that sustained him over a lifetime. The third source of his strength was Jesus’ personal awareness and love of him. “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” His encounter with Jesus, whose knowledge of him was so intimate it had to be divine, overwhelmed his skepticism. It was a mystical experience like that of the psalmist who prayed, “O God, you search me and you know me. You know my resting and my rising. You discern my purpose from afar. You mark when I walk or lie down. All my ways lie open to you. Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it O Lord, through and through. Behind and before you besieged me, your hand ever laid upon me. Too wonderful for me this knowledge, too high beyond my reach!” Christian friendship, words of encouragement, and personal encounter with Christ set Bartholomew on the road toward his greatest witness, a martyrdom that still fills us with awe.
In Michaelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment no one is alone. The saints are helping to lift one another up into the clouds above, while the devils are pulling the damned down into the world of the lost. We help lift one another up in Christian friendship by words of encouragement and by drawing each other to encounter the love of Christ. Once a Christian mother who teaches catechism to grade school children told this story: “I received a call from Joey’s Mom. (Joey is a very quiet 4th grader in my class.) His Mom said, ‘I understand you read a book to the class yesterday.’ The book was kind of goofy but it had a beautiful message, I bought it at Spencer, and since I was already having a bad day I thought the other shoe was about to fall. She went on to say that Joey loved the book so much he wanted his own copy, and that she wanted to read it, too. She explained that Joey was playing with a friend who was Jewish. Joey [like the apostle Philip] began telling his friend about Jesus and that Jesus was Jewish, too. She never heard him speak like that before, and went on to say that he loved coming to my class each week, something you don’t hear too often. That made my day, my month, my year!” May we also lift one another up by Christian friendship, by words of encouragement, and by drawing others to experience intimacy with Christ. Isn’t that what the Eucharist is all about?