Homily preached at the Eucharist to mark the beginning of the Lent Term
The Revd Dr Will Lamb, Vice-Principal, Westcott House
5th January 2015
There is a studied ambiguity about Twelfth Night these days, poised as most of us are between two celebrations of the Feast of the Epiphany. Many of us will have celebrated Epiphany yesterday, chalking it up above the front door, and yet we will celebrate Epiphany – again – tomorrow.
While experience shows the pastoral necessity of celebrating Epiphany on the nearest Sunday, I also see the wisdom in celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, to allow a little more space to share in the simplicity of the shepherds and to ponder the depths of the mystery of the incarnation.
While the octave of Christmas is filled with a rich diet of one liturgical festival after another, today on the plain old Monday after the Second Sunday of Christmas, we can ponder once more the miracle of Christmas.
And yet, we do so not by contemplating an infancy narrative but by thinking about the call of Philip and Nathanael. John’s gospel of course has no birth narrative as such. He begins with a majestic prologue, which many commentators describe in terms of the poetry of a hymn: ‘In the beginning was the Word…. and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. He passes almost immediately to the baptism of Jesus, and the call of the first disciples: Simon, Andrew and then Philip.
Jesus finds Philip and says, ‘Follow me.’ And Philip responds by finding Nathanael and telling him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ And yet the remarkable thing about Nathanael’s response is that he appears to suggest that the origins of Jesus were thoroughly unremarkable: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
Nazareth, a town described by one American commentator as ‘Nowheresville’. We associate it with basilicas and pilgrim bus tours, sometimes even villages in Norfolk, but in the first century, who would have thought that ordinary little Nazareth would ever produce a Messiah? But we perhaps discover here an insight that the poetry of the prologue fails to convey, the very beauty of its language distracting us from the simple fact that ‘flesh’ is ordinary.
There is an economy about John’s language in this passage – far more is left unsaid than is ever expressed in the short pithy statements that follow. Philip says, ‘Come and see’, echoing Jesus’ own words to Simon and Andrew in the passage immediately before this.
And yet the exchanges which follow are far from ordinary. Jesus sees Nathanael and says, ‘Truly, an Israelite in whom there is no guile’. In these words, there is an intimation of the shadowy figure of Jacob, who lived by his wits and stole his brother’s birthright. ‘How do you know me?’ ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ For early commentators, drawing on the story of the fall and the fig leaves used by Adam and Eve to conceal their nakedness, the words suggested that Nathanael still lived under the shadow of sin. But for more modern commentators, the image is suggestive of Nathanael’s obedience to the law.
And yet, the goal posts have shifted. We have moved from the ordinary to the extraordinary. There is this moment of mutual recognition. Jesus recognizes Nathanael and Nathanael recognizes Jesus: ‘’Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And then Jesus says, ‘Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
St Augustine argues that in this tangential reference to Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, Christ is here revealing his divinity in a beautiful way. The passage moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Or rather, by discovering the extraordinary in the depths of the ordinary. It is an insight captured wonderfully in a Christmas poem by UA Fanthorpe, entitled ‘Angels’ Song’.
Intimates of heaven,
This is strange to us,
The unangelic muddle,
The birth, the human fuss.
We sing a harder carol now:
Holy the donkey in the hay;
Holy the manger made of wood.
Holy the nails, the blood, the clay.
(U A Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems (London, 2010))
St Augustine also argued that good preachers, who preach Christ, are as angels of God ascending and descending. They ascend through contemplation, just as Paul had ascended even to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2); and they descend by instructing their neighbor, by sharing the fruits of their contemplation.
So as we look to the term ahead this evening, let us make sure that we devote ourselves to prayer and spend some time contemplating the mystery of the incarnation, learning to see with the eyes of faith, with the eyes of Nathanael, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
On Twelfth Night, as we pack away those Christmas decorations and take down the Christmas cards and we prepare for a new term. Let us remember that in the work that God has given us to do in response to his call, ‘we are all called to do, not extraordinary things, but very ordinary things, with an extraordinary love…’ (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (London, 1989), p. 298).