photo by flyingpete (2007) viamorguefile.com
Tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Bartholomew. One of the 12 apostles, my husband and I named our first child after him, using his Hebrew name, Nathaniel. In Jesus' time, it was not unusual for a Jewish man to have both a Greek and Hebrew name. Saint Bartholomew is also the patron saint of my parish family. Thus, this apostle has become one of my favorite saints.
When discussing names for our first-born, we originally considered Nathan. I love the Old Testament prophet who had the courage to point out to the king his sin, yet did so in such a gentle way that King David came to the conviction of the seriousness of his sin and repented accordingly (see 2 Samuel 12). Perhaps Nathan could be considered the prophet of confession.
Similarly, Saint Nathaniel can be considered the first New Testament saint to experience the healing power of the Sacrament of Confession. His confessional, a fig tree; his priest, Jesus; his sin, untold because of the seal of Confession.
I've always loved the story about Saint Nathaniel (John 1:45-51). Even though he is only listed in the synoptic Gospels under his Greek name Bartholomew, Saint John introduces Nathaniel to us with an interesting narrative. After Saint Philip encounters Jesus, he seeks out Nathaniel and tells him about "the one about whom Moses wrote, and also the prophets." When Philip presents Nathaniel to Jesus, Jesus declares, "This man is a true Israelite. There is no guile in him." Confused as to how Jesus knows him, Jesus reveals: "Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree." Nathaniel immediately recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God and the king of Israel.
It always makes me wonder - what was Nathaniel doing under that fig tree?
Then, one day, I was reading the 32nd Psalm, a psalm for the remission of sin. "Happy the man to whom the Lord imputes not guilt, in whose spirit there is no guile" (Ps. 32:2). "That's it!" I thought, "That is what Nathaniel was doing. He was praying this psalm!"
We know that Jesus chose 12 good men to be his apostles, but none of them were perfect. Even Nathaniel, who Jesus declared to be without guile, was not yet perfected. Maybe, not long before meeting Jesus, Nathaniel had done something wrong. Perhaps, like the first Israel (Jacob), he took something that didn't belong to him. The sin itself isn't revealed, nor is it important. What is important is the contrition he felt.
With true sorrow, Nathaniel may have fled to the fig tree to pray and express his sorrow. Psalm 32 comes to his mind. Hearing it from his youth recited over and over at the temple, he knows it by heart. This time, he really prays it.
Then he meets Jesus. Jesus had heard his prayer. How could this be? Unless...this man is the Son of God; the king of Israel, the Messiah who has come to save us from our slavery to sin.
Nathaniel probably did not fully understand all of this yet. Still, he experienced the power of the Word of God that day. No doubt Nathaniel knew he was forgiven. The psalm told him so: "I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I covered not. I said, 'I confessed my faults to the Lord,' and you took away the guilt of my sin" (Ps. 32:5). Yet, hearing it from the Word of God in the flesh must have conveyed such a powerful rush of peace.
God created us body and soul. Though our intellect/soul can understand that our sins are forgiven by Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for us, how good is it for our ears/body to hear, "I absolve you from your sins," spoken by the priest in loco Christi. The sacrament of Reconciliation brings us the peace of forgiveness.
In time, Nathaniel would able to spread this peace as he traveled, preaching the Good News, baptizing, and forgiving sins in the name of Jesus, just as our Lord had commanded him. Even in the face of death, martyred by being skinned alive, he never lost his sense of peace.
We, likewise, can experience the peace that comes from hearing the words of forgiveness. We walk into the confessional with a heart heavy with fear and sorrow; we leave with a clean heart and a renewed spirit. We are given the graces to overcome our weakness. We, like Nathaniel, can now follow Jesus with peace and confidence.
St. Bartholomew, pray for us.