Nathanael’s Epiphany

You will see the Heaven opened

The Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Epiphany (John 1:43-51) takes us to one of the most mysterious and beautiful moments in the Nw Testament. As the disciples begin to gather around Jesus, Philip finds Nathanael and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) Nathanael’s unpromising response is ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ But Phillip gives the best possible reply that anyone sharing the mystery of their faith can give; ‘Come and see’. and that ‘come and see’ sets a theme of ‘seeing’ and vision which culminates in the amazing exchange between Nathanael and Jesus that follows.

Before Nathanael has uttered a word Jesus says ‘Behold an Israelite indeed’ and turns the tables of ‘vision’ onto Nathanael himself, and in that moment Nathanael suddenly knows that he is ompletely known by this man he has never met. ‘Whence knowest thou me?’ he asks, and Jesus’ reply is again about vision and seeing: ‘Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.’  Something amazing happens here, Nathan, who was scoffing at Nazareth a minute before, has a sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching, leaping ahead of all the other disciples to an undertanding and certainty that even Peter would not attain for another three years, and declares ‘Rabbi thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel!’

An Epiphany has taken place, something whole and complete has been disclosed in a single glance, to see and be seen is enough! This is an example in the Gospel of a sudden ‘awakening’, a direct pointing to reality, which some people think is only associated with Buddhism, but here it is. And then Jesus, alluding subtly to Nathanael’s mention of Israel, promises that this is just the beginning of a greater epiphany. Nathanael is ‘an Israelite indeed’ and Jesus points to the key epiphany in the life of Israel, when he was still called Jacob, the epiphany in which he saw the ladder connecting heaven and earth:

‘Verily, verily I say unto you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’

Here is one of those thrilling moments when a mysterious image from the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New! The ladder was a prophetic image given in a dream to Jacob of what is to come, now it has come true! I am the ladder, Jesus is saying, the true connection, the true gate of Heaven. And in this intimate exchange Nathanael has seen with his waking eyes what his ancestor had seen only veiled in dream and symbol!

I have tried to embody something of these reflections in the following sonnet. I am grateful again for Margot Kreb’s Neale’s beautiful photograph, itself a comentary on this same mystery. As always you can hear this poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Nathanael’s Epiphany

A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,
A man of clay, his head upon a stone
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from Heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken-hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.

And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.

And here also is a link to the podcast of a sermon inspired by this story and concluding with this poem:

Jacob, Nathanael and You

An extraordinary Sculpture of Jacob's Dream at Abilene Christian University, Texas.


Filed under christianity, imagination, Poems

8 responses to “Nathanael’s Epiphany

  1. margot krebs neale

    “to see and be seen is enough!” this experience gives us our greatest joys on earth, what will it be like this “encounter”…This is the point when I feel something of that “fear of God” the old Testament talks about, but then in Jesus, that encounter never seemed to frighten…the healer, the teacher, the listener, the seer, the friend!

    • malcolmguite

      Yes! and yes again. And that very question ‘what will it be like, this encounter?’ is addressed in George Herbert’s wonderful poem ‘The Glance’ do you know it?
      here it is:
      The Glance
      WHen first thy sweet and gracious eye
      Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night
      To look upon me, who before did lie
      Weltring in sinne;
      I felt a sugred strange delight,
      Passing all cordials made by any art,
      Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart,
      And take it in.

      Since that time many a bitter storm
      My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,
      Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm
      His swing and sway:
      But will thy sweet originall joy,
      Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,
      And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll,
      And got the day.

      If thy first glance so powerfull be,
      A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;
      What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see
      Thy full-ey’d love!
      When thou shalt look us out of pain,
      And one aspect of thine spend in delight
      More then a thousand sunnes dispurse in light,
      In heav’n above.

  2. And Nathanael’s own name in Hebrew being ‘God’s gift’.
    Julia in Florence

    • malcolmguite

      yes, another lovely aspect of this piece, one can never overstate the significance of names and naming in these gospel encounters!

  3. very beautiful words so meaning ful prasie the lords and bless those words and bring peace and everlasting happiness to this world.

  4. Noel Garner

    Thank you Malcolm. I like that insight

  5. I also love how the tone of Nathaniel’s first statement about Nazareth is skepticism, cynicism – existential…almost a “HA! prove it!” Very Western and “modern” for a first century Jew.

  6. Sally Phalan

    Beautiful sonnet, Malcolm, the Old and New Testaments encapsulated in a few lines, as they are indeed in that passage of John – perhaps the completion of the sequence Jacob – Nathanael is Stephen at his martyrdom when, as Jacob did, he saw ‘heaven thrown open’ and not only that, also ‘the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’? The image of a ladder connecting heaven and earth also recalls for me that powerful passage in Hebrews 6, verses 18-20 ‘Now we have found safety, we should have a strong encouragement to take a firm grip on the hope that is held out to us. Here we have an anchor for our soul, as sure as it is firm, and reaching right through beyond the veil where Jesus has entered before us and on our behalf..’ And thank you for that dear poem of George Herbert, after all, what would be the point of heaven opening for us without the welcoming smile on the face of Jesus!

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