Memorial of St. Barnabas, Apostle
Have you ever heard the term second fiddle? This idiom originated from the early days of orchestras. An orchestra has a first violinist, or first chair, who plays the melody and is regarded as the lead violinist. Then there is the second violin who leads the larger group of second violins who play a supporting role to the lead violinist.
In popular usage, playing second fiddle is not a flattering term. It means playing a supporting or minor role in relation to someone else: As in not good enough to take the lead.
I remember reading a story about Leonard Bernstein, the late, legendary conductor of the New York Philharmonic, giving an insightful answer during an interview. He was asked: “Mr. Bernstein, what is the most difficult instrument to play?” Without skipping a beat, he replied: “Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm . . . now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
Such profound wisdom. By Leonard Bernstein’s definition, Barnabas must be the patron saint of second fiddles. Let me tell you why. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is the major evangelist proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. His name always comes before that of Barnabas. Paul plays principal violin to Barnabas’ second fiddle. Barnabas stands in the shadow of the great Apostle Paul. Do you know what the name Barnabas means? The son of encouragement. And encouragement means to give heart, to make strong.
We hear this in the first reading: “The news about them, that is the people who want to be followers of Jesus, reached the ears of the Church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to go to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all. He rejoiced and encouraged them all.”
Barnabas played second violin with gusto and humility. As second fiddle, Barnabas gave his community beautiful harmony. Let’s be honest, though. For most of us, and I stand at the head of the line, it’s challenging to play Second Fiddle! Why? Because it takes humility. And humility is the bedrock foundation of faith.
There will be times when God calls us to take a position as first violin, to take the lead. But there will be many more times when God will say to us: I am moving you from first chair. I need you to join the larger group. I already have enough Pauls. I need more Barnabases. I need you to give encouragement to your friend, to your community. I need you to strengthen others, and who will strengthen you. Joyful, selfless humility lets us know there is honor in playing second fiddle along side the patron saint of second fiddles.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.