My first-born son’s name is Nathaniel. My husband and I first 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.
If so, then St. 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 St. Nathaniel. Even though he is only listed in the synoptic Gospels under his Greek name, Bartholomew, Nathaniel is introduced to us in the Gospel of St. John. 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.” (John 1:47-48) 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?
Recently, at Mass, we read 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” (John 1:49), 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 (our soul) can understand that our sins are forgiven by Jesus’ very sacrifice on the cross for us, how good is it for our ears (our 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, 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.
St. Nathaniel (Bartholomew)’s feast day is not until the end of summer, August 24. Let’s make a point not to let summer get away from us without getting to confession at least three times before his feast day. Why? Because we need it. We may not be called to a martyr’s death by being skinned alive as St. Nathaniel was, but we are called to die to self everyday. The special sacramental graces of Reconciliation make this sacrifice not only possible, but easy. We can become saints!
Copyright 2015 Kelly Guest.
Photo by flyingpete (2007) via Morguefile.com