August 24: Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

First Century
Feast; Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of bookbinders, butchers, and leather workers


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Little is known with certainty about today’s Apostle, and perhaps Saint Bartholomew is just fine with that. If he were like Saint John the Baptist, he would want Christ to increase and himself to decrease. It is possible, although not certain, that Bartholomew is the same Apostle as Nathaniel. Bartholomew means “Son of Tolmai” and is not a name, technically, but a patronymic, like the Scandinavian “son” found in “Anderson” or “Erikson.” The Bartholomew of Matthew, Mark, and Luke may describe the man known in the Gospel of John more correctly as Nathaniel. Bartholomew is paired with Philip in some Gospel lists, which corresponds, interestingly, with Philip being an old friend of Nathaniel in John’s Gospel. But so little is known with certainty about the Apostles that these conjectures will likely never be resolved.

After his appearance in the Gospels, Bartholomew first resurfaces almost three hundred years later in the works of Eusebius, a bishop and church historian who wrote around 300 A.D. Eusebius relates a story about a Christian teacher traveling in India who is told that an Apostle, presumably Bartholomew, had preached there long before him and had brought a Hebrew Gospel with him. Equally vague traditions have Bartholomew evangelizing in Persia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The details of his death likewise dissipated in the fog of ancient history. One tradition holds that he was flayed alive, a story reflected in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, which depicts Bartholomew holding his own skin. Because of this tradition, Bartholomew is the patron saint of tanners. History holds that Bartholomew’s relics are in the church named after him on an island in Rome’s Tiber River.

The Nicene Creed states that we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The Church, then, is an object of faith in the same way that God is an object of faith. She is not the end result of a world-wide community of believers or merely a forum for belief. She gathers. She is not gathered. The Church is the mother of Christians, not their offspring. The Church is more than a carrier of faith, more than a train whose cargo barrels through the centuries transporting the heavy freight of the Gospels and tradition to diverse cultures. The Church not only bears a message, then, She is the message.

Unfortunately, the Church’s sins and failings are, for many, the primary obstacle to belief in Christ. It is not just that the Church’s holiness is not apparent. It is that Her unity is questioned due to deep theological divisions. And Her members’ struggles for power, wealth, and prestige also obscure a more pristine Christian faith which She should project. But to think that the Church could be sublimely holy, totally unified, and pristinely sinless is to dream. The Church exists in the world, reflects the world’s dramas, and suffers from Her same sins. We do not believe in the Church because She is perfect, but because there is nothing else like Her. She is unique. She is better than any alternative. If we expect from the Church the Sacraments, we will never be disappointed.

Today’s saint lived and evangelized in the era of the dreamy early church, when the fire of Christ’s love burned hottest, when the Gospel was as fresh as baked bread, and when gusts of the Holy Spirit blew through the Apostles’ hair. And yet…Bartholomew still had his skin slowly peeled from his body by a sharp knife, or was crucified, or both. The world was wicked in the first century too, and so the Church had problems in that era as well. Just read the letters of Saint Paul. The Church was born into a rough pagan world and still exists in a rough, though different, secular world. Saint Bartholomew died at the hands of imperfect pagans for an imperfect Church. Yet the imperfect, primitive Church persevered in her infancy because of the witness and sacrifice of many saints. The imperfect, modern Church will continue to persevere in Her adulthood because of our witness and sacrifice today.

Saint Bartholomew, help all Christians to see in your example of martyrdom a heroic witness to perseverance in the face of difficulty, of fidelity in the face of doubt, and of courage in the face of timidity. May we have just a portion of what you had in such abundance. Amen.

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