Epiphany 2B. 18 January 2015.
Alexander D. MacPhail
From time to time, we notice that whatever has been working is no longer working the way it should. Several weeks ago, I was in the little room in the hallway that we all need from time to time, and suddenly the light bulb went out. Perhaps you know what that's like. There is a moment of mild panic as you wonder if the electricity has completely gone out.
The same can happen in the spiritual life. The heart and mind has been engaged in a particular prayer or discipline, and one morning it means nothing to us. A moment of slight panic as we quickly seek to discern if this is a momentary flicker, or if we may need to rekindle the embers a bit.
In the back of our minds we have the reassurance that God will never leave us or forsake us, but still, something has changed, and we may not be sure exactly what, or how to go about addressing it.
I usually address this problem by asking God where I am, and what's going on, and then I look through various books and articles, and see what I can find that helps. One of the great blessings of my vocation is that I'm frequently needing to study the Bible; and doing so can be very enriching.
In the first century, it was common practice for the rabbis to study the Bible under fig trees. So I would imagine that when Jesus mentions seeing Nathanael under the fig tree, it may be a reference to Nathanael's study, which of course indicates that Nathanael was already devout Jew.
We only meet Nathanael in John's Gospel. And though the story we read today is very brief, there is a lot going on behind the scene. We remember that John's Gospel is written in very mystical language. John offers a lot of intentional symbolism.
St. Augustine noticed, many years ago, the similarities between the story of Nathanael and Jacob. For instance, Nathanael is described as an Israelite without guile—meaning a very straight forward sort of person. Jacob is described as a man of cleverness and savvy. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending; Jacob's vision at Bethel was of a ladder of angels ascending and descending.
Actually Jacob was given the name Israel, which is a name that implies that he is "the personification [or embodiment] of God's people rapturously beholding their God."[*] And here, Nathanael rapturously beholds the living Christ, the Son of God, and calls him that!
There is a deep sense of fulfillment in this encounter. That what happened for Jacob is happening again, but this time the living God is standing right there, and the angels ascending and descending are described by Jesus as ascending and descending upon himself.
Also remember the key to understanding John's Gospel: You remember the first verses—the Prologue—of John, that Jesus came to his own people and his own people did not recognize him, but those who did receive him received the power to become children of God." So much of John's Gospel—so much of the point that John is making—is that some people saw Jesus for who he really was, and many did not. Those who could only see a man were blind, but those who could see more than just a man, could see the living God.
This encounter with Nathanael you may notice occurs in the very first chapter, in fact, right after the Baptism of Christ. It may be intended to be a symbolic description of Jesus coming to every devout Jew in Israel. Like coming to Israel himself, Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes.
And if we look at it as such, it's a very poignant story, because even though symbolically, John has made it seem as if the whole of Israel is converted in this one encounter, we know that that is not the case. We know that the prologue is still true. Some could see Jesus through the eyes of faith—some could see him for who he really was—but many, many could not, and did not.
And the even more bitter irony is that even those of us who believe we can see him, do not always see him for who he really is. So often we see our own projection of him—what we want him to be.
And perhaps that is the moment when the light bulb really goes out—when the prayers no longer work, and we begin to wonder what has happened.
Jesus' words to Nathanael are words of surprise at his faith, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?" (As if to say, "If that's all it takes for you to believe, what does it say about the people who will watch the lepers be healed, and the lame walk, and still not believe!?") "Very truly, I tell you," says Jesus, "you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending..."
In other words… actually let me give you several paraphrases:
"If you believe me because I said I saw you under the fig tree, then:
· it's not going to take you any more faith to see the connection between heaven and earth in me."
· you are about to see what happens when you live the Torah you have been studying."
· what you are about to see me do is going to blow your mind."
Now, I'm going to point out one more thing about this text because I think it will really bring this message home. In John's Gospel, Jesus expresses surprise when people can see. And so much of that seems to be because so many people saw his signs and did not believe.
So fast forward through John's Gospel, past the teachings, the healings, the crucifixion story, and now find chapter 20, the story of Jesus and Thomas. Remember it? Thomas was not in the room when the risen Christ first appears to the disciples, and then a week later Thomas is there, and Jesus says, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas then says, "My Lord and my God!" And Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?" (Sound familiar?) "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!"
This is the exclamation mark John places at the end of his Gospel. It is the final, emphatic proclamation to everyone who seeks after Christ Jesus, but who, unlike Thomas, unlike Nathanael, were not physically present when Jesus walked the earth. That those who caught sight of him and really saw him for who he really was, rapturously beheld the living God!
And the message that comes home to us is that those who have not seen Christ physically, but have seen him spiritually—through the eyes of faith—are blessed, and are not second class citizens in the kingdom of God.
We who see him now though trust and holy hope know him just as surely as Nathanael and Thomas. That time and space do not separate us from the living God. That Christ Jesus is fully present by the presence of the Holy Spirit to us now, just as he was then.
Our inability to feel that at times does not render it untrue. So often the light bulb goes out because we place our trust not in God, but in a sensation we associate with God. And I think often that sense of absence breeds a kind of panic.
But God has not left us, even for one instant. God is fully within us at all times, though we may or may not experience a warm fuzzy feeling that we associate with him. But you have to be willing to let go of that expectation, or rather, you have to develop the faith that Christ is just as present with you when you don't feel him. And that requires genuine spiritual maturity. It requires being a person of trust.
I remember when my spiritual director, Mark Dyer, said, "You have to keep going, Alexander. If the white hairs on my head mean nothing else to you, let them tell you that you have to keep going. God is faithful." And he was right. Sensations come and go. Happiness can come and go.
The beauty of this lesson is that we are able to look through Nathanael's eyes, and to receive the same acceptance and love that Christ gave him. "Do you believe because I said I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than these." But "blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe."
[*] Lee Barrett in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 1, pg. 264