The first time I played the game “Capture the Flag”, I fell in love with playing outdoors. The team game was held in a large forest, the boundaries of which contained several acres of dense woodland. Not only did my teammates and I need to be attuned to our positioning – as in most team sports played on a court, field or rink; the more we could balance our attack with distraction and lure our opposition away from the prize the better we played as a team.
But that depended on getting to know the unique landscape of the field of play, which would be different each time we played “Capture the Flag”. The physical layout of the land – boulders, bushes, tree trunks, ditches – played a huge role in how we executed our strategy. Where we played – the specific location of the game – influenced how the game was played and the eventual outcome.
In today’s Gospel reading, Nathanael and Jesus met for the first time. Jesus’ first words to Nathanael were, basically, “I know you and you are a good person.”What jumps out at me was Nathanael’s response. His choice of words; or, as some biblical scholars have decided to translate his response from the Greek, as in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) from which we read today.
If a stranger came up to you and said, “Hey, I know you are a good person and there is no deceit in you,” how would you respond? Perhaps our kneejerk, and slightly cynical, response might be: “How would you know that? We’ve never even met.” No, I like how the NRSV interprets the Greek, not starting with ‘how’. Instead, “Where did you come to know me?” Where.
Jesus will know him by another way – by where they would have had a deep, spiritual connection.
Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree.” We don’t know for sure what Nathanael was doing under that fig tree when Jesus ‘saw’ him. Our best guess is that he was connecting with God in prayer.
Christ is revealed to Nathanael as God’s Son when Jesus appealed to a specific, geographical location where Nathanael experienced God’s presence. Now this convinces Nathanael, and he doesn’t skip a beat in responding: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.” The Gospels are full of this bias for geography and location. A specific, physical space is so important to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Even in this text there is almost an exaggerated, overdone, mention of various locations. In just eight verses we are made aware of not just ‘under the fig tree’ but Galilee. The story can’t begin without setting this location of the action and characters. Then we hear of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. And then, we deal with this emphasis on Nazareth: positive because that is where Jesus comes from and negative because in the local lore, nothing good can come out of that place.
The specific place of our prayer is critical, foundational, to connecting with God.
I mentioned how much I enjoyed playing “Capture the Flag” outside. In fact, that is what my brother and I played while my mother prayed. When I was a child, my brother and I often followed my mother to the cemetery beside the church where I was confirmed – St Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Conestogo, Ontario (near St. Jacobs and north Waterloo).
We lived across the street from the cemetery lined with sprawling spruce trees. On the other side of those spruce trees was a valley gently sloping down to a creek. And this was a great location for hide-and-seek/capture-the-flag kinds of games.
Under one of the spruce trees at the edge of the cemetery atop the hill, my mother would sit quietly to pray. This was her place, her space, to meet with God. And she went there regularly during the spring, summer and fall months of the year.
The last time I visited this place was a couple of years ago at my father’s burial in that cemetery; here are a couple of pictures of my brother and I reminiscing of the importance of this place in our family history:
Here was my introduction to praying in a personal space. Our mentors will often suggest praying, and exercising for that matter, at the same time of day in the same place if at all possible. There is wisdom in grounding oneself in that discipline.
Today, when sheltering in place is the call to protect ourselves and each other from the pandemic threat, our homes and common living space have become our primary places of prayer. Where would you go to pray, today? Over the years while visiting people I’ve seen several so-called ‘home altars’.
There would be, in the corner of the living room, family room, basement or hallway, a chair beside a window or a small side table; on and around it would be symbols, candles, cloths and images that would serve to aid one in prayer. A holy, focal point. This was the place in the house where one went to meet with God. A home altar doesn’t need to be fussy, opulent, busy and crowded with these things: a simple, single candle and a cross would suffice.
Nathanael was convinced, in the end, by God validating his holy experience in place.Where he was drawn to pray nearby. That God would meet Nathanael there, and value this intimate and ordinary common-place spot moved his heart to believe.
The Gospel story ends, in the last verse, with a reference to one of the most vivid holy encounters between God and human described in the scriptures – Jacob’s ladder. Here, in a town called Luz, Jacob once had a dream about a ladder upon which angels ascended and descended, connecting heaven and the earth in the place where he slept.“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This promise is meant for us all.
Because God is interested in a personal relationship with you, wouldn’t God know you in your personal space, wherever that may be? Perhaps during this COVID time we are all called to bring it home, again: to create that place in our personal space.
Here, we may not know nor understand the mystery of God. Here, we do not know as much as we are known. And then, like Nathanael, all we can do is kneel, kiss the ground and acknowledge the holy presence of God, in Christ Jesus.
The second-person form of ‘you’, here, is plural. The evangelist here is speaking to a wider audience. John wants his readers to see themselves as the heirs of the promise Jesus gave to Nathanael. See Leslie J. Hopp, “John 1:43-51” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Vol.1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.264-265.
Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2020), p.14-15.