I always enjoy celebrating the feast days of saints about which we actually know very little! I refer to them as “they also served.” Not all of us will be canonized, or even recognized, for whatever witness we may make to the God we have come to know through Jesus Christ, but we have “also served” and it’s nice to know there are folks like us in the Christian calendar.
Bartholomew is one of those about whom we know little. His name appears in some lists of the twelve apostles and that’s about it. Some scholars believe he was also known as Nathanael and, if that is true, we know a little more. He was introduced to Jesus by Philip, was the one who snarkily asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” and yet was described by Jesus as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Perhaps because he spoke his mind!
When Nathanael asked him how he knew that, Jesus said he had seen him under a fig tree (teaching, in rabbinical fashion?). When Nathanael asked, in effect, how Jesus could be that perceptive, he replied, if effect, “You ain’t seen nothin yet.” One day you’ll see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. You’ll realize that this Son of Man is a connector of heaven and earth.
That reference is, of course, to the story of Jacob who received a similar vision of the heavenly ladder once during a long, dark night in the desert. I had a similar experience during “The Desert Course” at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. We spent about a week traveling through the Sinai, tracing the old pilgrim routes, sleeping one night on the desert floor and the next night in an Orthodox monastery.
One evening before bed, around the campfire, our Egyptian guide has us look up into the cloudless yet brilliant sky and said, “Welcome to the Sinai. One moon; ten thousand stars!” And he was right. Later, when I — like the ancestor Jacob — tried to go to sleep with my head on a smooth stone, but snuggled in a sleeping bag, I could almost see those angels — descending…and ascending.
But, back to Bartholomew/Nathanael. Tradition also has it that he brought Christianity to Armenia. Certainly he is venerated there in that capacity and I once visited the site of a monastery which was thought to have been founded by him. Some of my fondest memories, as ecumenical officer for our church, was my relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church.
They are wonderful people, joyful Christians, and great friends of the Episcopal Church. For, when the Armenian people immigrated to this country, the Orthodox would not allow them to use their churches because they were so-called “Nestorians” (“Oriental” Orthodox) while the Roman Catholics would not allow them to use theirs because they were “Orthodox” (how’s that for irony?).
The Episcopal Church said, “Come right in!” And Armenian Christians worshiped in Episcopal Churches, especially in New York, until they could build their own. They have never forgotten that hospitality and have remained our friends and supporters while much of the Orthodox world has written us off as even being Christians, because of the ordination of women and our embrace of marriage equality for gay and lesbian people.
So, thank you St. Bart! For simply appearing in the list of the Twelve; for giving hope to us who “also serve;” and for being at the root of a tradition which stretches from the Holy Land to India to Armenia and across the Atlantic to these shores. You are indeed…
An Israelite in whom there is no deceit…