Tom, Dick or Mary?

This year, the Friday before the August Bank Holiday is St Bartholomew’s Day. Who was he? I don’t actually know of anyone called Bartholomew – I’ve heard of the London Hospital named after him called St Bart’s – the oldest hospital in Britain still providing medical services on its original 12th century site. He has absolutely nothing to do with the blonde son of Marge and Homer Simpson. There is a publisher of road maps called John Bartholomew of Edinburgh and, funnily enough, in my bookshelf one of his maps is alongside Philip’s Atlas of the world – Bartholomew and Philip next to one another? – quite a coincidence since the former was introduced to Jesus by the latter?

Looking through the New Testament, Bartholomew’s name appears five times – once each in the Gospels and once in Acts. Mostly his name was one in a list of names and in three cases he is linked with Philip. It is also thought that he was the person whom John called Nathaniel. That’s all the info we have on him – all we know is that he was consistently present.

There’s also an ancient tradition that Bartholomew travelled to India, and another that he was eventually crucified in Armenia after being flayed – I remember seeing a beautiful small carving showing this at the entrance to the Chapter House in York Minster and there’s a stained glass window in the Quire that shows him again, holding his skin – rather gruesome to our sensitive modern eyes.

What more can we say about him? His martyrdom showed that he remained faithful. John tells us he was called to Jesus through Philip – he didn’t suddenly hear a voice out of the blue. And if we stop and think about it, that is how most people are called – by something heard, something read, or something seen.

So how will you celebrate St Bartholomew’s Day? Will you be getting your maps out and planning a family outing to the coast or inland? You and how many others if the weather is fine? You could have fun if you’re going any distance by rail – but check your timetable carefully. You could have a wonderful day sitting in your car, stationary for hours on end! There’ll be thousands about over the weekend and many of them will set off early on the 24th! Thousands of people about you who you don’t know – so many anonymous faces – I wonder how many of them will be a Bartholomew? He IS there, among the crowd in every generation, not anonymous but puzzlingly hidden.

Thinking of people hidden in the crowds reminds me of some of those crowd or congregation-scanning sequences in Songs of Praise – do you watch it? I like watching it because the singing is often inspiring, but the interviews, I reckon, are even more so. In a minute or less we are given a miniature portrait of Christian living in all its infinite variety. The chance of us ever meeting the people interviewed is tiny. We know that they are out there somewhere, continuing to live the Christian way, hour by hour, day by day, year by year. But those lives are entirely hidden from us, except for sixty seconds of concentrated inspiration glimpsed face to face on the screen in our homes.

“I am the Way,” said Jesus. Bartholomew heard, and believed, and followed. He saw Jesus, Jesus saw him, face to face. After Pentecost many others must have seen Bartholomew, known his face and voice, heard his testimony to the Lord. They found in him an authentic guide, a road map as it were, as they began to work out what it meant to follow the true Way. But to us, he leaves nothing, not even enough material to fill a sixty second TV interview slot.

Bartholomew claims nothing for himself, this saint of summer. No need to compete with him as we might have to do with James, Peter and Paul, in leadership, eloquence or perseverance. He demands nothing from us, yet he too is an Apostle, whose call, response, discipleship and ministry were as real as his better-known fellow-believers.

He is like all those people who serve God faithfully, steadfastly, and often quietly, in a seemingly humdrum way. We can’t all be famous! We can all aim at being steadfast, allowing the Holy Spirit to help us live the Christian life; praying, using the Scriptures, treasuring and sharing communion in sacrament and membership, bearing witness in our own individual situations.

Both the claim, and the demand, to which Bartholomew silently points, are Christ’s, “I am the Way. Take up your cross and follow me.”

So thank God for Bartholomew, the Apostle and guide for the Way of the Cross; and thank God for the Bartholomews we know, even if their actual names are Tom, Dick or Mary.

Max Young