This week's readings: 2nd Sunday of Epiphany

by
02 November 2006

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1 Samuel 3.1-10;
Revelation 5.1-10;
John 1.43-end

NATHANAEL wonders whether anything good can come from that proverbially inconsequential place, Nazareth. (It is the kind of gibe that we who were born in Sidcup are used to.) There is only one way to find out.

Philip's "Come and see!" recalls John the Baptist's "Behold the Lamb of God!" (John 1.36). Testimony to Jesus Christ is not a matter of going on about him, but of getting out of other people's line of sight so that they can see and decide for themselves.

St Augustine, for whom two and two frequently made five, thought that Nathanael must have been a dreadful sinner. Why else was he lurking under a fig tree when Jesus saw him? Adam and Eve tried to hide their shame behind fig leaves. So, too, said Augustine, did Nathanael.

Jesus, as usual, is kinder than Augustine. For Jesus, Nathanael is a "guileless" child of Israel, the patriarch who was formerly known as Jacob. Unlike his famously shifty forefather, Nathanael is a straightforward character, a blunt northerner in fact.

Guile is primarily a sin of the tongue - saying one thing, intending or concealing another. It is a thoroughly modern vice, much exercised by spin-doctors and those who sell us what we neither need nor want. If guile is smooth talking, perhaps an even greater compliment is being paid Nathanael. Perhaps there is an allusion here to one of whom it was said that there was "no deceit in his mouth"(Isaiah 53.9).

What Jesus already knows about him strikes Nathanael as nothing short of a miracle. For Nathanael, this was "the first of signs" - not what happened next at the wedding at Cana. His response is a tad over the top, even if substantially correct. He piles on the praise, lavishing on Jesus the titles of the Messiah. Jesus is unimpressed by tributes based on his apparent powers of clairvoyance. Here is the first hint we have in John of a health warning found in all the Gospels. Miracles can be dangerously misleading.

Nathanael will see "greater things" than displays of extrasensory perception. Like Jacob, he will see a ladder of mercy, set between heaven and earth. This ladder is different from most. It is not Plato's ladder of love, by which one ascends by stages to the vision of the Beautiful and the Good. Nor is it the ladder of perfection described by the medieval English mystic, Walter Hilton, the staircase the ardent soul must mount from the myrknesse of sin to union with God.

It is most certainly not any rung-by-rung method of self-improvement. Images of Jacob's ladder, of heaven opened, of hurrying angels attending on the Son of Man, belong with all the other figures with which this Gospel teems. By them John unfolds the mystery of who Jesus is. As John's Jesus did not say, but might have done: "I am the true ladder."

The traffic of the angels anticipates the interplay of ascending and descending in which John so delights. At the cross, that counterpoint is at its starkest, the paradox most acute. Christ's descent to our depths becomes an ascent to his throne.

The thing about ladders is that they must rest securely at both ends. The Jesus of John's Gospel is at once the Word who is God and the Word made flesh. Both ends are secure. The ladder is grounded where we are. This is good news, if where we are isn't very nice, and if, as is the case, there is nowhere else to start. A weary W. B. Yeats wrote:

I must lie down where all

    the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop

    of the heart.

We know little about Nathanael and his fig tree, except that he does not return to its shade. He reappears once in John's story, in its haunting epilogue, where he is named among the disciples to whom Jesus "showed himself" by the Sea of Galilee (John 21.2).

Why had Nathanael gone back to his fishing? At the start, his taunt about Nazareth was that of a sceptic. Now - when all seems over - there are these tales of an empty tomb. Is his scepticism once more aroused? If so, the invitation to breakfast on the beach echoes the earlier one.

"Come and see." "Taste and see." There's still only the one way to find out.

Nathanael isn't the Bartholomew of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as those who feel compelled to tidy up loose ends assert. Nathanael isn't Bartholomew - he's Nathanael. He knows who he is, even if we don't. His name is one of the many references to particular places and people, otherwise unknown, against which we stub our toes in this text. Nathanael's cameo appearance is an indication that there is rather more history in the fourth Gospel than those who see it as one long sermon allow.

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