Last week I admitted that I’m as Jersey as it gets, especially when I’m not on my best behavior, and so I have a bit of an affinity for the Apostle Nathaniel, who if any of the Apostles had, say, grown up with my mother in Jersey City, Nathaniel would be the one. Nathaniel’s general demeanor makes me want to know more about him, but alas, he’s only mentioned a couple times in the Scriptures, and holy tradition isn’t a ton of help in fleshing him out.
The first time we meet Nathaniel was in the story we heard today. “Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee, and was brought to Jesus by his friend, Philip, who also became one of Jesus’ disciples. Nathanael was one of the first to express belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. His name means “God has given” in Hebrew. Interestingly, Nathanael is only mentioned in the Gospel of John; the other three gospels identify him as Bartholomew.
“The call of Philip and Nathanael to discipleship (was seemingly rather easy). Jesus went to Galilee and found Philip first, who then went to Nathanael, his friend. Philip told Nathanael that he had found “the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”. Nathanael was skeptical and said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” This skepticism was understandable; at that time Nazareth was an obscure little hill town, remote and of no consequence. It was not sophisticated or glamorous, quite the opposite—it was not a place that anyone expected the Messiah to come from.
“Despite his skepticism, Nathanael followed Philip to meet Jesus. When the Lord saw Nathanael coming toward Him, He said, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no (guile)”. Nathanael accepted this description as true and wondered how Jesus knew his character, having never met him before. Jesus explained: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you”. Nathanael then immediately recognized Jesus as the Christ, calling him the “Son of God” and the “king of Israel”.
If it were only so easy for all of us. I often envy, if that’s the right word, those who got to be around Jesus back then, those who got to see Him, hear His earthly voice, share a glass of wine with Him after dinner. I, along with many others, think that they must have had it made; following Jesus must have been easy when you actually got to literally follow Him around.
But perhaps it wasn’t so easy. Remember that the disciples, while willing to leave everything and follow Jesus, didn’t always get things right – it took them a long time to sort out who Jesus was and what was happening around them. Think of the Apostle Thomas, there from the beginning, who wouldn’t totally buy in until he could touch the risen Christ. Nathaniel, in his bluster, sometimes comes off as a bit of a blunt instrument, but as Jesus pointed out, was also the kind of guy who would sit under a fig tree and contemplate his faith, the kind of guy who believed God and looked for a savior. He nailed his first attempt at identifying the Messiah, but surely there were bumps along the way.
Nathaniel stayed the course, however, and was gifted with the task of spreading the Gospel around the world. Eusebius recorded that Nathaniel made his way to India, much like Thomas, after the Great Commission, and he certainly preached and planted the Church in Armenia. Nathaniel set up shop in Albanus, now Derbent, on the Caspian Sea, and just like ten other Apostles, he was martyred for the Faith. Nathaniel was skinned alive and beheaded – just to make sure, I guess – and so a flaying knife is used when he is symbolized in art. Michelangelo included Nathaniel in his work in the Sistine Chapel, and it’s believed that Nathaniel’s face is a Michelangelo self-portrait.
How do we become more like Nathaniel? First, by taking the time to contemplate our faith, to take stock of who we are and our relationship with God. Second, by expecting God to act in our lives, by recognizing those moments of grace and revelation for what they are. And thirdly, by following Jesus; perhaps not by foot as Nathaniel did, but with our lips and in our lives, that we too might be found worthy of the promises of Christ.