During my middle school and high school years, my parents imparted valuable social skills that they believed would benefit me as I transitioned into adulthood. My mother specifically emphasized etiquette. For instance, when invited to someone’s house for dinner, it’s customary to wait for the host to signal the start of the meal, often indicated by them picking up their silverware first. Additionally, it’s essential to be mindful not to comment on someone else’s food, especially if it’s something you don’t personally like.
On the other hand, my dad underscored the importance of staying informed about current events, just in case you might be engaged in conversation with an elder. He also highlighted the significance of a firm handshake and holding doors for others—even if they’re a few paces behind you. Most crucially, he emphasized making eye contact when speaking to others for better connection, perceived honesty, mutual understanding, and respect.
All of these have served me well, although I admit that maintaining eye contact in conversations is difficult for me. I had always wondered why eye contact proved challenging until I was diagnosed with a neuro-difference about six years ago. For people who have ADHD (like me) or are on the Autism spectrum, maintaining eye contact can prove disconcerting.
Although I’ve worked hard throughout my life honing this skill, I actually find it distracting to maintain eye contact while sifting through an already distracted mind for the right words to articulate my thoughts. As I look into someone’s eyes while speaking, I am often filled with self-doubt rather than confidence. I ask myself, “Did I express that clearly? Did I use the right words to convey what I wanted to say? Can they see all the clutter in my head through the veneer of my eyes? Are they judging me?”
And then I hear myself say, “Wait, I’m sorry, could you repeat that last sentence again?”, too embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t fully present because I was absorbed with the voice of a negative self-image in my head.
In his book of neologisms entitled “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” author John Koenig defines his word opia as “the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye.” In an expanded essay on this noun, Koenig writes, “Eye contact isn’t really contact at all. It’s only ever a glance—a near-miss—that you can only feel as it slips past you. There’s so much that we keep in the back room; so much that other people never get to see. We only ever offer up a sample of who we are, of what we think people want us to be. You put yourself out there, trying to decide how much of the world to let in. It’s all too easy for others to size you up and carry on their way. They can see you more clearly than you ever could. Yours is the only vault you can’t see into, that you can’t size up in an instant. You’ll always have to wonder if someone might come along and peer into your soul. Or if anyone out there will put in the effort, trying to find the key.”[i]
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus discovers Philip and calls him to follow. The details of their exchange are not explicitly mentioned, leaving us to wonder about the words Jesus used to convince Philip to abandon everything and seek out his friend Nathaniel, who was found alone meditating under a fig tree.
Philip excitedly declares to Nathaniel that they have found the one foretold by Moses in the law and the prophets: Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathaniel’s response, however, reveals doubt, if not a hint of scorn, towards this news. It could be perceived as slightly amusing, if not outright sarcastic, as Nathaniel questions, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It seems as if he dismisses the idea of an itinerant rabbi from a less esteemed background, considering Nazareth inferior to other towns in the region. Some scholars speculate that Nathaniel’s skepticism may stem from the absence of Nazareth as the Messiah’s prophesied birthplace.
Despite Nathaniel’s doubts, Philip persuades him to meet Jesus, leading to a moment of what can be described as ‘divine opia.’ It’s not a passing glance or a near miss, but a profound gaze into Nathaniel’s soul. As Jesus sees Nathaniel approaching, he exclaims, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” One can imagine Nathaniel’s eyes locked and frozen in Jesus’ adoring gaze. Nathaniel’s response indicates his surprise and speechlessness as he tries to grasp the grace-filled judgment of Jesus. Only a moment ago, Nathaniel had been dismissive of Philip’s testimony of Jesus. Bewildered, Nathaniel asks, “Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus reply, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” might seem mysterious to our modern mindset. But, in ancient Jewish thought, the fig tree was a symbol of peace and tranquility and was a setting for prayer and contemplation.[ii] Perhaps when Jesus saw Nathaniel under a fig tree he recalled the words of prophets like Micah: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”[iii]
While Jesus had not known Nathaniel familiarly until that point, he recognized Nathaniel intimately as someone who exemplified a holy “etiquette” aligned with his mission of bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth and the reconciliation of all nations under God’s gracious rule. In turn, Nathaniel felt seen and understood in a way that he might not have experienced with anyone else. This encounter inspired him to exclaim, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus responded, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This reply echoes the story in Genesis where the patriarch Jacob falls asleep on a stone, dreams of a ladder extending from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending, and has an encounter with God who assures Jacob of peace and prosperity.
When Jacob awakes, he declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” Similar to Jacob, Nathaniel had come face to face with God, and in Jesus, he saw the meeting of heaven and earth.[iv]
So, what can we take away from this account of “divine opia” between Jesus and Nathaniel? First, we can be assured that we are known and loved intimately by God. The story of Jesus’ and Nathaniel’s meeting is amplified in our Psalm this morning: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. For you created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. My body was not hidden from you while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.” Through Philip, Jesus sought Nathaniel, held him in his gaze, and revealed something about Nathaniel’s self that not even Nathaniel knew. And, so it is for us. You, too, are sought by God through Jesus. God has created your inmost parts and knit you together in your mother’s womb. God desires to hold you in His gaze in hopes that you will return it. God wants you to know Him as He knows you, and it is in Jesus that this intimacy develops.
Secondly, because we are created in God’s image, we possess the ability to reflect God’s love, light, and provision to others. Unfortunately, we often maintain a surface-level connection with our neighbors when what we truly yearn for is intimacy. In this era, social media promises to bring us closer together, yet without face-to-face interactions, without gazing into each other’s eyes, we find ourselves increasingly isolated, contributing to an epidemic of loneliness.
Our longing for intimacy is often hindered by the fear of judgment, dismissal, and rejection. To cultivate intimacy with our neighbors, it is crucial to establish a safe space where difficult conversations can unfold in the light of God’s grace. As author Taylor Jenkins Reid eloquently put it: “People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can reveal yourself to them, when you stand in front of them exposed and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’—that’s intimacy.”[v]
God is revealing to us the path to the intimacy we crave with both God and one another. The key we need to open the vault is Jesus. In a few moments, we will witness heaven opening, with angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man during in the Eucharistic Rite. Come forward, join your hands, and receive Jesus, present in the bread and wine. Then, return Jesus’ adoring gaze and come to know him a little more fully as he knows you. Amen
Lectionary Year and Proper: Epiphany 2; Year B
[i] Koenig, J. (2021). The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Simon & Schuster.
[ii] Barclay, W. (1975). The Gospel of John (Vol. 1). Westminster Press.
[iii] Micah 4:3b-4
[iv] Genesis 28:10-17
[v] Reid, T. J. (2022). The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Blackstone Publishing.
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