Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. John 1:51
This is a mysterious statement indeed, as is the entire conversation with Nathanael. But the Evangelist does provide some clues. When Jesus calls Nathanael a “true Israelite in whom there is no duplicity (dolos),” that statement rings a bell for those who know their book of Genesis. For it is Jacob who is first bears the name Israel and he is said to have acted “with duplicity” (meta dolou) in stealing his brother’s birthright and his blessing (Genesis 27:36-37). Once the Jacob connection is in our mind, it is not a stretch to hear in the line quoted above (about angels “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”) a reference to another part of the Jacob story. For in the next chapter of Genesis we learn of Jacob dreaming of a ladder extending from earth to heaven, on which the angels of God were descending and ascending. During the dream God repeats the promise of land and sea and the blessing of the nations that he had made to his grandfather Abraham. And Jacob calls the place Beth-el, or House of God.
So Jacob’s dream was about the connection between heaven and earth that was to come with the sacred space of the desert tabernacle and, later, with the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, the place where the divine and the human came together (“the gate of heaven” in Jewish tradition). Jesus’ statement in John 1:51, then, identifies himself as fulfilling what the temple was all about. This reinforces what the Evangelist had stated in the Prologue, when he said, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt (literally “tabernacled” or “tented”) among us. That is what we celebrated at Christmas, the Incarnation, when the humanity of Jesus became the new Sacred Place, the ultimate link between heaven and earth.
That could simply seem a pretty picture. But the reading from the First Letter of John reminds us of practical consequences. There John says:
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers [and sisters]. . . The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers [and sisters].
How does that passage connect with the temple idea? In the perspective of the Gospel of John, the community, joined with the body of Christ, is the new temple. That new way of being brings a new ability to relate to the other persons who belong to that body—the love that Jesus mandated at the Last Supper (John 13), loving one another as He has loved us, laying down our lives for one another.
Writing this in Omaha in the aftermath of the Westroads Mall shootings exactly one month ago today, this reflection brings to mind the heroism of those who responded to that horrific situation, even as it was in progress. I think especially of John McDonald. When the shooting began he took shelter with his wife behind a large chair. As the shooter approached that area, John gave up his hiding place and stood up to confront the deranged young man, who then shot and killed John and then did the same to himself. The gun still had ammo. So John’s move brought the assault to an end, no doubt preventing the killing of others. He literally laid down his life for them.
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