‘To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless.’ (4:11)
Recently I purchased a book about religious art containing detailed explanations of common symbols which traditionally accompany the representations of saints. The book relates these symbols to their proper saints – these are object or characteristic which clearly mark out who a particular saint was or what he or she did. So if you found yourself looking at a sacred image and you don’t know who it is of, you can use this book to decipher, as it were, the image; you can look up the objects and symbols and consequently identify the saint.
On the front of your welcome sheet I have printed a fairly stern image of the St Bartholomew. We can see that he is holding a book and a knife – albeit a large knife. Immediately, even if Bartholomew weren’t standing in front of some rather camp wallpaper bearing his name, the knife and the book should help us identify him. The book is an indication that he had something important to do with the spreading of the gospel and the knife is clue an about his death. However, there is another way of picturing St Bartholomew – something that is a clear giveaway.
When I studied art history I remember being fascinated by the giant fresco last judgment by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. There, sat on a heavenly cloud below Jesus there is a naked old man who is dangling his own flayed skin, the sign of his martyrdom. So if you put two and two together, if you relate the knife in our picture and the flayed skin put on display as if it were an animal hide, you can decipher how Bartholomew was killed, he was skinned alive by his persecutors – oh, and then decapitated just to make sure.
‘To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless.’
Over the past weeks news programmes and social Medias have featured many reports from Iraq and Syria that showed Christians facing daily persecutions for their faith. These people are suffering in the way Paul describes in our second reading, ‘hungry and thirsty …poorly clothed and beaten and homeless’. Many have been forced to leave their homes; many have been the object of violence; the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad has reported that a child whom he baptised a few years back has been cut in two. Many have been killed with a brutality and cold-bloodedness aimed to eradicate the Church from the land by blood or by fear. As you probably know, numerous photographs and videos which have been circulated are too shocking for the conventional media to air; but they have fo
und their way to us over the internet. They show mass crucifixions, beheadings, and innumerable other horrors. In fact, the way some Christians are suffering for the faith it is quite unpalatable for the Ten o’clock news.
One internet video that has become very popular for all the wrong reasons is the one of the beheading of journalist James Foley. I should say that I refuse to watch it and I would encourage you not to watch it either. However, what has not received the same volume of attention is James’ faith and an article he wrote about his captivity in Libya a couple of years back has not been picked up by the conventional media. James writes, ‘If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom.’
We might feel helpless in front of so much atrocity. But these people being killed are our brothers and sisters, our siblings, flesh of our flesh as we all are fed by Christ. If we can’t physically rescue them, if we can’t follow them, we must help them in other ways. In fact, we have the weapon against so much violence at our disposal. We have a double edged sword in our hands, not the sword of violence which is the only resort politicians can think of, but the sword of prayer and almsgiving. God calls us to use this weapon daily, but especially now. Prayer is the glue that can enable their freedom. So I encourage you not to be silent and passive towards those who are imitating Bartholomew undergoing sufferings in order to bear faithful witness to Christ. I encourage you to pray for our family. Pray for our brothers and sisters; pray for the conversion of our persecutors. I encourage you to give alms. Give cheerfully and generously to the poor and to the church. These are the ways in which we can fight back against so much horror.
Let us pray,
O God, who will that the Church
be united to the sufferings of your Son,
grant, we pray, to your faithful who suffer for your name’s sake
a spirit of patience and charity,
that they may be found true and faithful witnesses
to the promises you have made.
Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.