On August 24th we celebrate the apostle Nathaniel. There are various lists of the apostles that do not agree with each other; Nathaniel is associated with Bartholomew, a patronym (named after his father––bar-tolomei, “son of Tolomei” in Aramaic). After the ascension according to legend he preached the gospel in Armenia, of which he is the patron saint; and also in India where he is said to have been martyred, a horrible death––being flayed alive. His iconography often pictures him with the knife. (Perhaps you will recall the famous image of Nathaniel’s flayed skin at the bottom of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel––with his own face! I’ve chosen not to use that as an image here below…)
There are so many details in the little story of the call of Nathaniel (Jn 1:43-51) that we just can’t catch in the translation and out of its cultural context. First of all, the famous line that Nathaniel says to Jesus––‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’––seems to be an old folk saying that Nathaniel is using, a kind of an inside joke. And then there is the fig tree under which Jesus has seen Nathaniel. There was a tradition that the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2 and 3 was a fig tree. So the expression “gathering figs” in some Jewish sources came to mean “studying,” and so traditionally this is the place where the rabbis studied the law––under the fig tree, under the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So there is Nathaniel sitting under the tree of knowledge, as if he was studying the Law. The fig tree is also a symbol of the eschaton––the end of times or the fullness of time. Add that to the fact that Nathaniel calls Jesus the “Son of Man,” the bar-enosh in Aramaic; this is the cosmic messianic figure again associated with apocalyptic eschatology as in the Book of Daniel, so again an eschatological allusion. So right at the beginning of his gospel John seems to be suggesting that Jesus is inaugurating the new age, the final days, the fullness of time, the fulfillment of the Law.
Nathaniel is an exemplary Israelite because he does not reject the new covenant, the new teaching of Jesus, as other Israelites will. (Remember this is early in the Gospel of John; no one has really heard Jesus’ gospel yet.) Jesus says of him ‘Truly here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ But the big thing of course is the comparison and allusion to Jacob who, remember, in spite of being a great patriarch, actually was very deceitful! He’s the one who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright! Philip says that Jesus is fulfilling what Moses was prophecying, and Nathaniel is like the new Jacob, the new Israel––without deceit. When we hear of Jesus saying that ‘you will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ we’re especially of course to remember Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, where he sees a ramp or a staircase set in the ground and arching up to heaven, a link between heaven and earth. On the stairway are angels, ascending and descending a sign of contact with heaven. But now Jesus himself is the stairway, Jesus is the bridge, Jesus is the ladder between heaven and earth. The angels are ascending and descending on him. This is the fullness of time coming, when heaven meets earth in this person of Jesus, Word made flesh. He is the why and the what.
So there’s a lot going on in that one little paragraph! But the fact that the Church also chooses this reading from Revelation 21 (9-14) gives us even a little more of an apocalyptic feel to this commemoration of Barnabas. This is right near the end of the Book of Revelation, after the Last Judgment, the ushering in of the new world and the new Jerusalem. There is not only an allusion to the connection between the twelve apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel (and the twelve gates and the twelve foundations), but there is also this description of the city’s architecture that sounds a lot like another apocalyptic writing, Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly temple (chapters 40 through 42), the tall mountain, even the notion of the enthroned presence of God.
So we’re being told that Jesus has ushered in a new age and we are still in it, this fullness of time, but it’s an “already and not yet.” Our eyes have still not yet seen that the chasm between heaven and earth has been bridged by Jesus. And so it’s not just all about holy souls and glorified monks climbing the ladder to heaven (with all due respect to John Climacus and holy father Romuald); as they are ascending they keep bumping into angels descending too. And the holy city Jerusalem is descending, too: I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. Heaven is bending down to earth. While we’re trying to escape to heaven, climbing our ladder to heaven, first we bump into angels descending, and then the holy city Jerusalem itself is coming down. Maybe this is part of the point of monasticism: it’s as much about coming down as it is about going up, coming down to the playground of our 880 acres, being the presence of Christ in the world, our life itself which is an evangelizing word.
All that made me think of Thomas Merton’s famous so-called enlightenment experience recorded in his journals in 1958 and then edited for Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, when at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district in Louisville, he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people:
… that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.
That passage always reminds me of Jacob’s dream. Jacob wakes up and says, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ Doesn’t Merton experience something like that at 4th and Walnut, and say something like that in Conjectures? “Indeed the gate of heaven is everywhere!” Oh that we could see it too, at Carmel Crossroads, at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar, on the campus of Cuesta College.
And that in turn reminded me of N. T Wright in Surprised by Hope. He writes that when heaven and earth are joined together in that new way that God has promised, then “Jesus will appear to us––and we will appear to him, and to one another [emphasis mine], in our own true identity.” That world of heaven is different from our world of earth, but it “intersects with it in countless ways, not least in the inner lives of Christians themselves”––and I think Merton might add sometimes even on the corner of a busy downtown intersection. Maybe this is akin to Saint Benedict’s seeing all the world in a single beam of light. One day the two worlds will be integrated completely, Wright says, and be fully visible to one another, producing that transformation which our scriptures promise, anew heaven and a new earth, and us a new creation. (Wright, 134-135)
Let’s pray that that day will find us too without guile, eager and ready for the vision that can see the gate of heaven everywhere.