HOMILY for the Feast of St Bartholomew
In the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, the apostle Philip is paired with the apostle Bartholomew, which means, the son of Tholomaeus (in Hebrew, Tolmai); it’s a patronym. But in St John’s Gospel, he is called by his own proper name, Nathanael, hence the choice of today’s Gospel.
“No one can see the face of God and live” (cf Ex 33:20): that is what Moses was told. And yet, Israel means ‘one who sees God’, and the prophets were regarded seers into the mind of God. But this was a far-seeing, as though from a distance, or, at best, a glimpse of God’s back… but never his face. When we meet Nathanael, he is portrayed as one who desires to see God, and he does the best he can, which is to study the Scriptures which is what “under the fig tree” implies. And he does so with an open and honest heart, without guile. Jesus acknowledges this when he meets Nathanael, saying he is a “true Israelite”, that is, one who truly seeks God, for the “pure in heart shall see God” (cf Mt 5:8).
But, of course, there’s a deeper meaning in the repartee that takes place in this Gospel; the humour points to a profound truth. For the One who stands before Bartholomew is God in the flesh. Jesus’s is the face he’s been seeking all his life but he dare not imagine this to be possible. So, at first, Nathanael just comes round to thinking that Jesus is the Christ, the greatest of prophets, a “far-seer” who saw Nathanael from afar sitting under the fig tree.
However, we know who Christ really is, which is where the humour lies. Because when Nathanael says: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth”, it is on one level just a hint of the rivalry between Nathanael’s hometown of Cana and the nearby village of Nazareth. But, on a deeper, truer level, it is as if Nathanael were to ask: “Can God come out of Nazareth”, for “only God is good” (Mk 10:18). And we’re invited to make an act of faith, and say, ‘Yes’. St Philip’s “Come and see”, then, becomes an invitation to contemplate the face of God in Christ. And when Bartholomew goes with Philip, he puts into action what he’s been doing under the fig tree: he gets up and goes in search of God’s face. So that, when Jesus stands before him, and says: “Behold, an Israelite indeed”, what is implied is “Behold, one who sees God indeed” for to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father (cf Jn 14:9). In other words, Jesus tells Nathanael that when he sees his face, then, he has found God whom he has been seeking. Indeed, Jesus says, “God is present and active in me”, which is what is meant when Jesus alludes to Jacob’s ladder where the angels ascend and descend on Bethel, the “house of God”, the place where God is. Jesus is Bethel in the flesh.
God has come to us in the flesh and revealed his face to us because he has first seen us. God sees our need, our search for him in the Law and the prophets, and in whatever is true, good, and beautiful. So, when Jesus says to Nathanael “when you were under the fig tree, I saw you”, there is a deeper meaning. It means that God comes in search of humanity even before we actively seek him. Because God truly sees our needs and he knows that nothing will satisfy the human heart except to see God, that is, to know Love itself. So, in his compassion and mercy, he became Man so that, in Jesus Christ we can see God’s face and not die but have eternal life.
We don’t have many details of St Bartholomew’s life apart from today’s Gospel, but we do know that he saw “greater things” as Christ promised. For the apostles are eye-witnesses to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; the first to have seen God’s face and lived, and we owe our faith to their witness and preaching. As St John Chrysostom says: “if [the apostles] had not seen [Christ] risen and had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much”.
Today we celebrate a true Israelite, one who truly saw God, and then dared to bring that good news to the whole world – to India and then to Armenia, where he was martyred – in order that we might also believe, see, and live.
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