Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Feast of St Bartholomew

Today is the feast day of St Bartholomew, one of the twelve Apostles, those first followers of Jesus. It ought to be easy, then, to talk about him, to tell some stories, to build up a picture of who this man was, but with Bartholomew it’s not that simple. He’s one of those saints about whom we know very little. We’re not even sure of his name. Matthew, Mark and Luke name a man called Bartholomew in the list of Jesus “inner circle” of friends, but John doesn’t. Instead he has a man called Nathanael, who the other three Gospels don’t seem to have heard of.  Both of them seem to be friends of Philip. Are they the same man? We don’t know. Bartholomew might have been his patronymic – a sort of surname – and Nathanael what his friends called him, but we can’t be sure.

If they are the same person, then we do have just one story about this man. John tells us that Nathanael was very sceptical when Philip first told him about Jesus. He was sitting under a fig tree in his home town of Cana, minding his own business when Philip rushed up, full of the news of this preacher from the neighbouring village. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he said.  “Come and see” said Philip. So Nathanael did. But as soon as he met Jesus his doubts were blown away.  “Here is a truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” said Jesus , seeing him come towards him. Nathanael was puzzled that Jesus seemed to have seen into his heart before he’d even met him. “Where did you get to know me?” he asked. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”. That’s enough for Nathanael.  Jesus knows him, through and through – which makes it quite ironic that we really don’t. All we have are a jumble of legends which, even to those who first told them, seem to have been rather hazy.

He might have gone to India, say the early church historians, as Thomas did, but maybe not. Some stories say he was beheaded, but others say he was flayed and crucified. He’s often painted carrying his own skin, rather gruesomely.
However he died, the most consistent part of the stories say that it happened in Eastern Turkey, which was then in Armenia. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church claims him as its founder along with St Thaddeus, who is equally obscure to us in the Western Church. For Armenians, though, these are important figures, the ones who brought the Gospel to them. They hold them in high regard, strengthened by their courageous example through many hundreds of years of hardship and persecution under the rule of the Ottomans, culminating in the Armenian genocide in 1915.  

Although Bartholomew’s life seems to have ended in Armenia though, his story most certainly didn’t. In the ninth century, somehow, his remains found their way to the island of Lipari, north of Sicily. Legend says they were washed up there miraculously, but possibly they were taken for safekeeping as Islam swept across Armenia… From Lipari Bartholomew’s relics were taken to the Italian mainland, and eventually to Rome. There the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, installed them in a recently built church on an island in the River Tiber, which became known as San Bartolomeo all’ Isola – St Bartholomew on the Island.

This was no ordinary island, though. Long before Christ was born, it had been a sacred place, dedicated to Asclepius the Greek and Roman god of healing, with a temple and a sacred spring to which people came for healing. When Otto built his church on the foundations of the old temple, converting the spring into a font, the healing theme just continued.  A monastic hospital grew up to care for the pilgrims who came to San Bartolomeo to pray to the Christian God, just as they had done to Asclepius.

One of those medieval pilgrims was a jester to the king Henry 1 of England, called Rahere, He’d fallen ill on his pilgrimage to Rome in around 1120, probably with malaria, and he found himself being cared for at San Bartolomeo. As he lay there he had a vision of St Bartholomew, who told him to found a hospital in his own land. inspired by the care of the monks who had nursed him,  Rahere promised he would do so. And that’s why the hospital he founded in London  was also dedicated to St Bartholomew – we often know it better as Barts - one of the oldest hospitals in Europe. It’s not the only St Bart’s hospital though – the association of Bartholomew with healing was now firmly fixed. St Bartholomew’s Chapel in Oxford – Bartlemas Chapel as it’s sometimes known–was once part of a leper hospital there. If you were in Sandwich on Friday you might have happened  on the celebrations at St Bartholomew’s hospital there. It’s now just a set of almshouses with a chapel but once a medieval pilgrim’s hospice. Local children are set the task of running around the outside of the chapel, after which they are rewarded with a currant bun. Adults get a specially made biscuit stamped with the hospital stamp.

But why am I telling you all this? It’s not just random information to fill ten minutes from the pulpit. The thing that struck me about Bartholomew was just how great a distance there was between the shadowy figure from the Gospels and all the things that came to bear his name. He seems to have been an ordinary Palestinian Jew from an ordinary background, a peasant farmer perhaps, or a tradesman or a fisherman, like the rest of the disciples. When he and the other Apostles were sent out to spread the Gospel, they didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and precious few resources to do it with. What would he have thought if he had known that he would become an inspiration to persecuted Armenian Christians, or that hospitals would be named after him, let alone that children would be running round churches in his honour for the sake of a currant bun?

However he died, as he faced his martyrdom, these possibilities would have been the last things on his mind. Like St Paul, whose letter to the church in Corinth we heard today, he would have been concentrating on the immediate challenges and dangers he faced.  St Paul’s rather barbed words are a rebuke to the complacent Corinthians who think they’ve got life all sorted out. The only reason their faith seems so easy to them, Paul implies, is that they aren’t really living it out at all. While they are congratulating themselves on their own successes, the apostles are suffering real hardship.

If we’d asked Bartholomew what impact he thought his life might have as he faced its end, I wonder what he’d have said? A handful of people who’d heard the story of Jesus from him, who’d been touched with kindness, changed with love, perhaps; maybe some communities drawn together by his ministry. There might have been small triumphs, but at the end, there would be pain and humiliation. “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure, when slandered we speak kindly”   said Paul, but those who endured this life must have wondered sometimes whether it was worth it? The small flames of faith he had ignited in people were hardly going to be enough to make a real difference.

But it wasn’t so. We may not know much about Bartholomew, but we do know that those who had been affected by his life must have been affected deeply enough that they wanted to preserve his name, associating it with good things, positive things, healing things. It doesn’t matter whether all the stories are true. It doesn’t matter if the bones that lie in that church in Rome were his or not. The chain of events that led to his name being enshrined in hospitals and churches around the world, celebrated in liturgy and in currant buns began with a real person, trying to live out his faith faithfully. Whatever he did, it mattered enough to those who saw it that they knew they didn’t want to forget him. His life helped them to deal with their own, and that’s what they wanted to remember.

Today people have opportunities for self-promotion, for a sort of instant immortality, which ancient people would never have imagined. Reality TV and social media can make household names of people who might otherwise have been unknown beyond their own immediate circle. Fame can be a poisoned chalice of course, but many people still seem hungry for it. They believe it will help them shape the way that others see them, and the way they’ll be remembered.

The truth is, though, that none of us can tell what ripples will spread out from our lives, even less control them. All we can do is focus on the here and now, trying to drop good stones into the pond, if you like, and let God look after what comes next.
Jesus sums it up in today’s gospel as he tries to mediate between his squabbling disciples. They are not to model themselves on those who are hungry for power and fame – the earthly rulers and powerful people of their time, the people who set the world’s agendas. Their model is the servant.

Servants are often unnoticed, though their work is vital, and rarely have much say in what they do or how they do it. They are there to get the job done, and that’s all. It’s a tough calling, so it’s no surprise that it’s not a popular one.  But it’s the pattern that Jesus set us, putting himself aside for the sake of others. 

It’s not about saying that we don’t matter – that’s a distorted and unhealthy form of servanthood, and can be hugely damaging both to the servant and the one who is served. Quite the opposite. Genuine humility comes from knowing that  we are of infinite worth to God, so we don’t need the acclaim of others. It comes from knowing that  we don’t need to make a name for ourselves, because God names us and knows us through and through. 

The truth is that none of us can know what our legacy will be, what people will remember us for. But perhaps Bartholomew, that elusive, enigmatic saint might help us to leave that in God’s hands, so that we can be free to do what we are called to now, living the Gospel and serving those around us as Christ did.

More about Bartholomew

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