About Andrew we know very little—the four canonical gospels concur in reporting that he was from Bethsaida and that he was Simon Peter’s brother, a son of Jonah (or John). The Synoptics record that they were fishermen and that Jesus, who was passing by on the shore of the Sea of Galilee one day, peremptorily called them away from their father and their nets to follow him.
The fourth gospel’s story is different, as usual. In John’s account, when we first meet Andrew he’s a disciple of John the Baptist. When Jesus wanders by one day, the Baptizer looks up and sees him. Calling him ‘lamb of God,’ John points him out to his own followers. Curiously compelled, Andrew and a second disciple leave John and approach Jesus. It is they who ask him the famous question, “Where do you live?” (or “Where are you staying?”), to which Jesus answers, “Come and see.”’
John the Evangelist makes it seem almost as if John the Baptist wants his disciples to abandon him, a mere forerunner, for the real deal, the Messiah, Jesus. There is probably more behind the story—some rivalry and perhaps even serious contention between the two groups. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the ‘facts,’ but if we take the scene at face value, it turns out that Andrew is the first of the twelve apostles Jesus called, a claim to fame if there ever was one.
But Andrew’s biggest claim to fame may be that he recruited his brother to follow Jesus. The fourth gospel reports that after meeting Jesus, he ‘first of all’ or ‘immediately’ went to Simon and told him that he had found the Messiah. It was at this moment that Jesus, “looking at [Simon] closely,” decided to rename him Cephas, Peter, the Rock.
About Peter we know a great deal more than we do about his brother, because of Peter’s subsequent significance for the church, which is inestimable. And so Andrew turns out to have something in common with his former guru—although both men are still honored in Christian memory, others eclipsed them in our remembrance; the Baptist and Andrew are holy second fiddles. Role models for most of us, I’d say.
Andrew also recruited for Jesus’ band another man from Bethsaida, Phillip, who in turn ‘found’ Nathanael (he of ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ fame). Later, ‘some Greeks’ approached Philip wanting to see Jesus. Philip referred the request to Andrew, perhaps because he had seniority or greater access, we’ll never know. In any case, it was through Andrew that the Greeks got their introduction to the Teacher and, presumably, found for themselves what Andrew had already found. And thus it was that Jesus’ inner circle began to grow, owing in no small measure to Andrew’s recruiting skills.
Andrew appears in some other key scenes in the gospels, such as that day when thousands were hungry after a long day of teaching and healing. Jesus, who wants to feed the crowd, asks his disciples if they have any food. Andrew’s the one who tells him about the boy with five loaves of bread.
Along with Peter, James and John, he asks, ‘Is it now you will restore the kingdom?’, which prompts one of Jesus’ eschatological discourses. You know—the crazy stuff most preachers dread having to wrestle to the ground on the first Sunday of Advent every year. For this prompting question we do not necessarily thank our saint of the day.
Andrew, we suppose, was also present with the others in the upper room for the last supper, but after that, aside from one brief mention of his name in the list of the Twelve in the Acts of the Apostles, we lose documented track of him—unless you count the wild and wonderful miracle stories (well, there’s a few in there that are not so wonderful and actually a little vicious) contained in the mid-2nd c. Acts of Andrew, in which, for example, he rescues Matthias from hungry cannibals in the ‘land of the anthropophagi.’
When it comes to saints, their afterlives are often far more exciting than their lives. And so here is the rest of the story, according to one tradition.
After Pentecost, a peripatetic Andrew preached the gospel all over the Mediterranean region—in Cappadocia, Galatia, Bithynia, the Scythian deserts, Byzantium, Thrace, Macedonia, and Achaia. No one knows when, where, or how he died, which has not prevented many stories about his death from circulating. Most concur that he was crucified during the reign of Nero (on November 30, in the year 60 CE, they say), probably at Patrae in Achaia.
We also hear that he was strung up on the cross with ropes, not fixed to it with nails. The earliest traditions say he died on a Latin cross, just like Jesus, but by the time his legend picked up steam in the Middle Ages, it had become a crux decussata, a saltire, now known as St Andrew’s cross. Apparently Andrew, like his more prominent brother, felt unworthy of a crucifixion like the Lord’s. His solution was to die on that X-cross; Peter’s was to be nailed to a Latin cross, but upside down.
Not only are we told that the well-traveled Andrew evangelized in the Mediterranean region; he is also claimed as the bringer of the faith by Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania (in those places he is sometimes remembered as a fisherman who plied his trade on the Black Sea—go figure); and, of course, he is claimed by Scotland.
Until the early 14th c., the Scots had been content with having received and enshrined many relics of Andrew (legend has them arriving in installments, starting in the 4th and ending in the 9th c.), using them to build up a popular pilgrimage site, St Andrew’s church. The possession of relics gave them a peculiar sense of proximity to Andrew, a kind of pride of ownership. (The story of the dispersal of Andrews’ relics is a saga in itself—but must be saved for another day.) But with political independence on their minds (see the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 CE) , the Scots also began to claim Andrew as the one who brought them the faith, and they made him the country’s patron saint (bumping St Columba, since an apostle outranks a monk any day of the week) and giving the church in Scotland the prestige of apostolic origins.
No one really believed a word of it then, of course; and no one does today either, but it doesn’t matter. Andrew is now more Scottish than Galilean. This should not surprise or scandalize us. We’re always naturalizing the holy ones, granting them citizenship, dressing them up in the local costume, asking them to fly our flags, and preoccupying them with our preoccupations, turning them into homeys, folk like you and me. I think we’ll always manipulate them in this way. Sometimes I think God makes saints just so that we can project our stuff onto them. And I suspect they don’t mind being made into mirrors in which we can try ourselves on.
Long live Andrew! Now let us pray:
Collect for the Feast of St Andrew
Almighty God, who gave such grace to your apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your son, Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us also into his gracious presence. Amen.
Andrew is, along with his brother Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, which makes eminent sense. Don’t ask me why, but he’s also the patron saint of unmarried women who want to get married, textile workers, water carriers, and people with throat illnesses, convulsions, and gout.