When you looked at meSaint John of the Cross
Your eyes imprinted Your grace in me;
For this you loved me ardently;
And thus my eyes deserved
To adore what they beheld in You.
Saint John of the Cross
The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (ICS Publications, 1991), 715.
This chapter reflects on the story of Nathanael’s epiphany as told in John’s Gospel. It’s a story traditionally recalled during Epiphany, that festive season of light and revelation, more particularly of Christ whom John lauds as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (1:9).
As the story goes, upon being called by Jesus to “follow me,” Phillip, one of the first disciples to be so called, ran to his friend Nathanael, exclaiming, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45).
Remember that at the time of Christ, Israel was all but suffocating under the ruthless occupation of Rome, an occupation Nathanael would have known and loathed his entire life. Nathanael would also have grown up with messianic hopes for a deliverer who would restore Israel to its former (national) glory. Even so, there’s a world-weary, cynical elitism evident in Nathanael’s response. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he objects. Apparently, Nazareth was an otherwise inconsequential rival town to Nathanael’s native Cana. Theologian Stephen Hultgren observes”
Nathanael has fallen prey to the offence of the incarnation: God chooses to come to us through the lowly and despised.Stephen Hultgren, “Commentary on John 1:43-51,” Working Preacher (January 18, 2009), www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=216.
But Phillip simply says, “Come and see!” And to his credit, Nathanael goes with Philip to meet Jesus. And here’s where the story gets interesting. For even while Philip and Nathanael are approaching. Jesus sees Nathanael and says of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Have you ever been in the company of someone who doesn’t really know you, but arrogantly presumes they do? It’s insulting. And Nathanael, already unimpressed, is duly insulted.
“Where did you get to know me?” he objects. “You don’t know me.”
“Ah, but I do,” Jesus replies. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
There has been plenty of debate over the symbolism of the fig tree in this story. One simple suggestion is that “under a fig tree” would be a typical place for a devout person to sit, pray and pour out their heart to God. Jesus, in essence, is saying, “I know your noble longings and aspirations, your heart’s aching, your brokenness and your doubts.” In short, “I see you.”
Ironically, immediately upon understanding himself to have been truly seen, Nathanael’s own vision is clarified and he has what Malcolm Guite describes as a “sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching.” Nathanael suddenly sees the one who has seen him. And Nathanael erupts, “You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel!”
Have you ever been seen? I mean really seen? I have. It’s the most astonishing experience. Here’s a brief story.
Jean Vanier is a modern-day saint and founder of L’Arche (communities around the world for people with intellectual disabilities and the friends who live with them). Vanier stayed at our home once while on a cross-Canada speaking tour, and even as a boy I found him to be a compelling curiosity. He dressed simply, he walked and gestured slowly, he spoke economically, and he had a quality of attunement and gaze that made you curious about what possible wonder he could be seeing whenever his eyes settled on this or that. When I started to learn more about him, I found him to be a man committed to simplicity, deep contemplative prayer and meditation on the life of Christ. He was a man renowned for loving, practical acts of startling solidarity and compassion for the world’s marginalized. In other words, the wonder of his personhood was no accident. He was a man dedicated to Christian soulcraft, which made him a man of radical and compelling freedom as well.
At the time, my father was the Protestant chaplain at Stony Mountain Federal Prison a few miles north of Winnipeg. Dad had organized Vanier’s tour, where he was speaking to prisoners across the country. After dinner, on the night Vanier stayed in our home, I went out to the backyard to play with my sisters while the adults retired to the living room to visit. I vividly recall being fully absorbed in a game of some sort when suddenly the air seemed to shift and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I instinctively looked up to discern a cause, and there was Jean Vanier sitting quietly on the back step. He was gazing past me, so I thought, transfixed by an apparent marvel. I naturally spun around to see what he was looking at. At first I was bewildered to see only our unremarkable garage, when suddenly I realized that Jean Vanier had been looking at me. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. No one but my parents had ever looked at me like that before. Ever so slowly I turned around again to meet his otherworldly gaze, under which I felt like I grew at least a foot. I don’t recall how long we looked at (beheld) each other, but I’ll never forget that face. For the first time in my life, I knew myself to be a marvel, even as I simultaneously came to know Vanier as a marveller.
Weeks later, I asked my father how one comes to know what they want to do when they grow up. Dad wisely encouraged me to ask a better question, one that starts with who rather than what. Who do you want to be? “Pick someone you admire for character,” he said. “Find out what they did to achieve that, and then do what they did.”
“What if he’s a Catholic?” I asked my Dad. And my humble, Baptist minister father – himself a worthy hero who, I assume, had seen the deep impression Vanier had made on me – simply smiled and said, “So be it.”
Such is the power of seeing.
But there’s more to Nathanael’s story. For after their initial revealing exchange, Jesus assures Nathanael that he will yet see even greater things. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus promises, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
This, of course, is a reference to Israel’s ancestor Jacob, who, while fleeing the painful wrath of a broken relationship with his own brother, dreams of the reuniting (marriage) of heaven and earth via a ladder (Genesis 28:10-19). What Jesus is saying to Nathanael – himself a child of broken human relationships, as we all are – seems to be this: “Nathanael, I am that ladder. I am the marriage of heaven and earth. What Jacob could only dimly perceive, you now see clearly in front of you.”
Three days later, scripture goes on to say, there was a wedding in the village of Cana.
May you, and I, know ourselves to be seen. And in turn, see the one by whose sight we see.
by Malcolm Guite
A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,Malcolm Guite. Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, 2012), 22.
A man of clay, his head upon the stone.
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.
And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.