UNTIL the feast of Candlemas, the liturgy retains a focus on the manifestation (epiphaneia) of Christ to the world. In this Sunday’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’s encounter with Philip and Nathaniel. In the preceding verses, Jesus calls three other disciples. Each of these encounters with Jesus leads on to a confession of faith. Andrew announces that “We have found the Messiah”; Philip declares Jesus to be “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”; while Nathaniel proclaims him “Son of God” and “King of Israel”.
These confessions all emerge from personal encounter rather than theological debate. When Philip tells Nathaniel about Jesus, Nathaniel’s initial reaction is scepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth is a marginal, humble town. It is the last place in which anyone would have expected God’s glory to be manifest.
Philip’s response is not to argue but rather to invite him to “Come and see.” As Johann Bengel observed centuries ago, it is our personal encounter with Jesus which offers the “best remedy against preconceptions” (quoted in The Gospel of John, by Rudolf Bultmann).
The face-to-face encounter between Nathaniel and Jesus is decisive in challenging his preconceptions. What is less clear is why Nathaniel finds Jesus’s words — “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” — so compelling. Nathaniel must have been doing something significant under the fig tree, but John does not tell us what. Jean Vanier offers some suggestions: perhaps he was expressing a yearning to see the Messiah, or even making a special promise to God about what he would do if this prayer was answered (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John). All that we can say with certainty is that Jesus’s observation inspires Nathaniel to recognise and heed his call.
Jesus responds by indicating that a greater manifestation is to come: Nathaniel will see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”. As Vanier observes, Jesus’s words “are pregnant with meaning, echoing Jacob and the prophets. They reveal the whole reality of how the Word came down from heaven, became flesh, and will return to the Father with all his brothers and sisters in humanity.”
The manifestation of Christ is also the theme of Revelation 5. Once again, his glory is revealed in what the world considers weakness (Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland, Revelation: The apocalypse of Jesus Christ). The passage begins with the “Lion of the tribe of Judah”, who “has conquered”, being hailed as the only person capable of opening the heavenly seals.
When the author turns to see the lion, he discovers that this is actually “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered”. This is a striking juxtaposition of God’s power and glory with apparent weakness. It mirrors Nathaniel’s discovery that the “King of Israel” is in fact a man from Nazareth, and the Evangelist’s later assertion that it is on the cross that Christ is truly glorified (cf. John 13).
Our Old Testament reading invites us to reflect on how we hear God’s voice. Because “the word of the Lord was rare in those days”, the prophet Eli has ceased to expect God to speak. Initially, he does not recognise that God is indeed addressing Samuel. When he finally realises, he instructs Samuel to respond “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This expectant attitude should accompany our reading of scripture, that the written Word might draw us into an encounter with Christ, the Word made flesh.
Such an encounter is the goal of both our New Testament authors. They are addressing different audiences, at different stages on their journey of faith. The Fourth Evangelist writes so that his readers will come to faith in Jesus, “and that through believing you may have life in his name”.
By contrast, the letters to the churches at the start of the book of Revelation indicate that its audience is existing Christians. It seeks to draw them into a renewed encounter with Jesus, as many of them “have abandoned the love you had at first”, and to sustain their faith in the midst of tribulations.
Neither writer is interested in simply imparting information. Both aim to draw readers into an encounter in which Christ is manifest. That is their gift to us.