Wednesday, August 24, 2011

St. Bartholomew and Christianity: Not for wimps

St. Bartholomew (also known as Nathanael) was one of Jesus' original twelve disciples. Tradition holds that after the Resurrection, he became a missionary, spreading the Gospel and planting churches until he was martyred for Christ in modern-day Armenia. Today is his feast day on the Church calendar.
St. Bartholomew, holding his own skin. Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Bartholomew is reputed to have met his end at the sharp end of a flaying knife (bad pun intended). Seriously, though - tradition holds that he was flayed alive and crucified after having successfully converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. The king's brother, who was not happy about the king's conversion, ordered Batholomew's execution.
The details of his martyrdom have made for some -- shall we say -- interesting artwork through the centuries. St. Bartholomew is usually identifiable in Church art because he is usually holding his skin in one hand and a flaying knife in the other. Pretty gruesome when you really think about it.

But that's how Christianity has always been: we've never shied away from harsh realities. Catholicism is raw. It's gritty. And as a faith, we have always proudly and defiantly honored the humanity as well as the mystery of the Church. We've always gloried in all the gory details of how some of our saints met their ends for the sake of the Gospel. In fact, we relish these details and cherish these stories because, in some mysterious way, we know that the sufferings of the martyrs glorify God and further his Kingdom. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church," opined one early Church Father.

We've also always preserved, honored, and even venerated the remains of Christian martyrs. For example, when St. Polycarp, an early bishop, was martyred by Roman authorities in 157, an eyewitness member of the local church recorded that members of the church "took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place ... [where], as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom." In other words, they preserved his charred bones (which we would call "relics") and buried them with honor so that they could celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom at his tomb (the precursor to modern saints' feast days).

Stairs leading to St. Peter's tomb, underneath the high altar.
Many ancient Catholic churches throughout the world are built where they are not because it was a great location architecturally, but in order to mark the tomb of a saint, or the place of a Christian martyrdom. St. Peter's Basilica in Rome was constructed at great cost and much labor on the side of a hill (Vatican hill) which had to be excavated and leveled to accommodate the original church. This was because that hill was the site of a cemetery where the Apostle Peter's remains were buried and marked by the first-century Christians after his martyrdom. The location of this grave was marked and venerated from the first century on.

This was typical of many of the apostles' tombs. This custom of celebrating Mass over the tombs of Christian martyrs is what led to the eventual tradition of placing relics of saints under the altars of Catholic churches before their dedication. In our own church of St. John's here in Oxford, which was dedicated in 2008, there are relics of St. John Baptist de la Salle and of Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos. Relics from the old church altar are also preserved underneath the Tabernacle.

The deeds of martyr-saints such as Bartholomew should inspire us. Christianity is not a wimpy, milk-toast religion. Much is expected of us in our faith --- sometimes even heroism. Pray that St. Bartholomew and all the Martyrs might intercede at God's throne so that we will all be emboldened to live out our faith with even greater fervor.