One of the things I love about having a regular practice of reading the Scriptures is how they can always surprise me. This morning’s Gospel reading was the calling of Philip and Nathaniel. And lo and behold, it contained for me this morning a perfect message for this the twelfth and final day of Christmas. (Funny how that happens when I let it…)
The story is a favorite among homilists, probably because the whole thing is quite comedic and also very human. It begins with Jesus calling Philip to follow him. Philip immediately goes to find his friend Nathaniel to tell him that he’s found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel responds with the classic line, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” To which Philip replies, “Come and see.” Jesus sees Nathaniel coming — and I mean he sees him coming a mile away, if you know what I mean — and immediately begins a humorous dialogue with him that, while light and funny, also cuts to the heart of Nathaniel’s character:
—“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”
—“How do you know me?” Nathaniel asks.
—“Before, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
—“Rabbi! You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
—“What, because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree you believe in me? You’ll see far more than this.”
Nathaniel’s response can be read two ways. The more literal reading involves some sort of miraculous foreknowledge on Jesus’ part — here, Nathaniel’s cynical attitude is overcome by a sign from God. Another interpretation takes ‘under the fig tree’ to be a euphemism for Torah study. In this interpretation, Nathaniel is won over not by a miracle, but because he feels his longing for truth and knowledge has been seen and recognized by Jesus. Either way, in my experience, this is where the homilies stop. It’s a nice and amusing story of the calling of one eager and earnest disciple and one cynical disciple who needs to be convinced. And so the message of the sermon is either something like “See what happens when you invite someone to church!” or “Jesus convinces even the wise-ass.”
But I saw something else today that gave me a new appreciation for the passage. What does Jesus specifically tell Nathaniel he will see? “You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This morning I was struck for the first time of this as an allusion to the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28. In that story, Jacob — alone, on the run, and on the outs with his family — has a vision in a dream, of a ladder that extends from the ground where he slept up to the heavens, upon which angels ascended and descended. God then reaffirms the promises God had made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and tells Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.” When Jacob wakes up he says: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
The parallels between the stories are striking. But where in Jacob’s case it was the place that became sacred (thereafter called Bethel, the ‘House of God’), for Nathaniel the place of God’s revelation, the place of Theophany, is to be the man Jesus himself. This adds a beautiful colouring to the earlier narrative. If indeed Nathaniel had needed a miracle to be a sign that Jesus was truly worth following, then Jesus is drawing him further in, away from parlor tricks to the very revelation and presence of God. If instead Nathaniel felt Jesus was recognizing his study of the Scriptures, Jesus is again calling him further in, away from knowing God from stories and traditions (as sacred as they may be) to knowing God’s presence there with him. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, some may desire signs and wonders and others may desire truth and wisdom, but for us as Christians, Jesus himself is the very revelation of God, the ladder forever linking and manifesting the Kingdom of God on earth. And it is to this experience — immediate, direct, all-consuming — to which Jesus calls Nathaniel, and it is to this experience that Jesus calls us today.
What a timely message for us on this twelfth day of Christmas, as we’re transitioning from the season of beginnings to the season of manifestations (Epiphanies, if you will. More on this to come.) If we are just starting the journey of faith, let’s come to Jesus eager to learn. Come and see. If we are further along the path, let’s come to Jesus eager to have our expectations upended. Come and see. If we seek signs and wonders, let’s come to Jesus in anticipation of what wonders we may truly find. Come and see. If we seek knowledge and truth, let’s come to Jesus in anticipation of being proven wrong. Come and see.