Feast Day: August 24th | Patronage: Neurological Diseases, Skin Diseases, Butchers, Tanners, | Iconography: Bearded as an Apostle; Wearing Tunic and Cloak (often red for a martyr); Carrying Book of Scroll because he brought St. Matthew’s Gospel to Mesopotamia, Parthia, Lycaonia, and Ethiopia; Holding Knife or otherwise indication of his being flayed alive.
One quick clarification first of all: Bartholomew and Nathanael have always been considered two names for the same apostle from the earliest ages of the Church. Bartholomew is a family name (“Bar” [“Son of”] “Tolmai”), so it would make sense that he would be called by another name as well, and since St. John’s Gospel closely link Nathanael and Philip (whereas the Synoptic Gospels link Bartholomew and Philip), it is evident these two names are for the same man.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell us that Bartholomew was one of the Twelve, but tell us little more. St. John’s Gospel gives us a fuller account of his call. Recall that Jesus first called Andrew (one of John the Baptist’s disciples) who then brought to Jesus his brother Simon (Peter). Then Our Lord calls Philip, also from Bethsaida, and it was Philip who convinced Nathanael that he had found the Messiah:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” [John 1:43-51]
Now, this is a famously cryptic passage! What does it mean that Nathanael was “under the fig tree”, and why does Jesus’ knowledge of this convince him so suddenly to become Christ’s disciple (especially given his unenthusiastic response to Jesus being from Nazareth. Here is a place where we have to know the Old Testament in order to understand the New Testament because the references that hearken back to God’s covenant with Israel are rampant!
Just to focus on three (skipping past all the ways Philip recognized that Jesus fulfilled the writings of Moses and the Prophets): Jesus immediately calls Nathanael “an Israelite … in whom there is no deceit!” Now, this comment refers back to the fact that Israel is the new name given to Jacob in Genesis 32 after he wrestled with God [“Israel” means “he strives with God”], whereas his birth name, “Jacob”, means “he takes by the heel”, which is exactly what he did to his brother Esau when the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah were born, but it also has the connotation of someone who cheats or backstabs, which was something that Jacob did consistently in stealing the birthright and blessing meant for Esau, as well as in his dealings with Laban, his father in law. Back to Nathanael, who Jesus says is an Israelite without deceit; unlike so many of us, this is a man who does not connive to get his own way, doesn’t fall to mixed motives in his relationships or faith. What a beautiful grace Jesus sees in him!
But, of course, there is more! Nathanael, puzzled at this soul-reading, asks Jesus “How do you know me?”, and Jesus responds with the tremendous line, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” What does this mean?! It refers back to the prophecy of Micah about the age of the Messiah:
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever. [Micah 4:3-5]
Why do countries, or individuals, strive and scheme against each other? Because we all operate out of fear, I guess deep down a fear that we will not have enough, or be enough. But what if we lived entirely in confidence on our Heavenly Father ? His Love could replace those fears within us with the fruits of His Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, etc. Notice that this was what the Lord worked to instill in Jacob, and what Jesus recognized in Nathanael, and for this reason, what happened to Jacob in Genesis 28 – when he had a vision of heaven with the angels descending towards him, and back to Heaven – is offered in even greater abundance to Nathanael, and every disciple of Christ. “Truly, truly, I say to you [you all], you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
– Fr. Dominic is still facing catching up on email, articles, visits, and everything else after his trip to World Youth Day. More to come about that pilgrimage, for this week I am praying for those fears to be supplanted by the faithful love of God.