EACH of these readings is a call to vision. Visions are not the preserve of the mad, or saintly, or both. They are for all Christians. The reason that not everyone gets them is (in part) because not all of us open ourselves to the possibility. Not having visions could be because we are not looking for them (hence the angel’s command “See!” (Revelation 5.6); or because we are looking but somehow not seeing.
St Augustine thought that sight was the highest of the five physical senses, because he associated it with light. As Christians, we can use the word “sight” to refer to ordinary seeing, and “vision” for a special kind of Christian seeing. The distinction is not always clear-cut, but there’s no doubt that all three of these readings are about vision in the fullest sense.
In the Gospel, Philip calls Nathanael to “come and see” — while Jesus has already “seen” Nathanael, before he met him in person. John of Patmos must “see” the conquest of the Lion of Judah. In the OT reading, in contrast, Eli’s sight has grown dim; and that failing external sight is a symbol of his failing internal vision, as God turns from Eli to Samuel, the young boy who has heard the call and responded.
In both OT and NT readings, elements of the passages feel uncomfortably severe. Eli is punished for not rebuking his sons’ behaviour. It is a key instance of the old “sins of the fathers” problem, where scripture offers us two different ways of understanding the issue (Deuteronomy 5.9-10 versus Ezekiel 18.1-4), and then we choose which prevails. But, like the practice of Jewish sons’ saying Kaddish on the death of their father, that outward behaviour is a confirmation that the father fulfilled the obligations of his faith by bringing up his son to reverence God. In this, Eli has failed. Still, the sin that can never be expiated strikes such fear into Samuel that he is afraid to speak God’s words to Eli. But Eli sees that the judgement is coming, and is content to accept it.
When it comes to the visions of John of Patmos, readers can struggle to make sense of strange creatures like a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, or feel surprise at how incense, which used to signify prayer, becomes itself the prayers of saints. Or is it vice versa? With John of Patmos, one can never be sure.
We also struggle (unless we see faith as for the chosen few) to match up his visions of restoration and healing (such as Revelation 21.1-7) with his Christ of final judgement (Revelation 21.8). Our analytical minds long to tidy up discrepancies. But the scripture insists on keeping them, holding them in tension. The contrast between solving the problem and living with it, or between imaginative approaches to scripture and factual ones, is approached differently, depending on our personality and character:
“‘You wicked thing,’ said Lavinia, turning on Sara; ‘making fairy stories about heaven.’
‘There are much more splendid stories in Revelation,’ returned Sara. ‘Just look and see! How do you know mine are fairy stories? But I can tell you’ — with a fine bit of unheavenly temper — ‘you will never find out whether they are or not if you’re not kinder to people than you are now’” (from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett).
The vision is true and sure. But for some of us, as for Nathanael, it is not yet. “You will see,” Jesus says. And, when Jesus declares what that vision will be, he does so in terms every bit as extraordinary as the visions of John on Patmos. What you cannot tell from the English is that, although Jesus is speaking to Nathanael, his words are in the plural: “All of you will see.” The vision begins as for an individual in historical time. It becomes a universal vision.
Whatever the precise meaning of Jacob’s vision of the ladder (Genesis 28.12), we should remember that it was taken as a promise of blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 28.14) — a confirmation, if you like, of John 1.14, that, between heaven and earth, where once a great gulf was set (Luke 16.26), there is now a connection: a bridge, a ladder, a way of passing over, in the person of the Son of Man.