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Posts Tagged ‘Revelation’

Under the Weather of the World – Br. Nicholas Bartoli


Jeremiah 17.5-10

Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Once upon a time there was a young Elm tree, and, sadly, he was miserable most of his days. The weather was so fickle, often just plain awful; one day, too much rain, another snow and hail; ice and cold, burning heat, or terrible winds. Sometimes cloudy days would go on forever with no hint of Sun. And the young Elm would lament bitterly.

Nearby, their lived an old Oak tree, standing silently by as the weather did what it did. Hot or cold, dark or sunny, windy or calm, wet or dry, the old Oak just stood content and still, wearing a smile more often than not.

The young Elm would spy the old Oak, baffled and, increasingly, annoyed. It’s cold and snowing, for God’s sake, what could that old Oak be smiling about? Until one day, the young Elm could stand it no longer, and he said to the old Oak, “Why on earth are you smiling? The weather is horrible… why aren’t you miserable like I am? What do you know that I don’t know?”

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The Revelatory Experience of Life – Br. Curtis Almquist


Br. Curtis AlmquistFeast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2019

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

The wise men in the Monastery crèche, carved in olive wood at Bethlehem.

The prophecy of Isaiah is revealed in Bethlehem. The early church saw today’s celebration as a revelation: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  The kings come. The three kings from foreign lands come to Bethlehem. The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means “fortune tellers” or “wizards.”[i]  (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that the magi reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac, some of it based on astronomy.[ii]The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for revealing that the wise men had followed a star. Read More

Here is the Lamb of God – Br. Sean Glenn


“Br.John 1:20-34

Here is the Lamb of God. I myself did not know him; but I came that he might be revealed.

As a child (and like many children) I lived with a terrible fear of the dark. Dusk brought with it great anxiety, for I knew what was coming, as it always had: the deep, dark, infinite night. If I am completely honest, this is a fear I have never really outgrown. When one summer between sophomore and junior years of high school I found myself drowning in preparatory reading assignments, the night brought new shades of anxiety. I recall spending most of that summer just as unable to face my bed as I had been as a child. Certainly, I became another “Glenn night owl,” but not because I enjoyed the night.

As an adult, I find the early anxieties brought on at dusk have only grown with me, changing shape, size, and magnitude as my experience with the world and myself became fuller, richer, and, at times, much darker.

It is now the darkest part of the year—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It is also a particularly dark season in the world. Yet this is not the only dark season I—or any of us—have known, and scripture invites us to name and own the enduring mystery at the heart of our human experiences of darkness. Read More

Open Wide – Br. Luke Ditewig


Br. Luke DitewigLuke 3:1-6

Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.

We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.

While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!

In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming! Read More

Healing Cuts – Br. Luke Ditewig


Br. Luke DitewigAmos 5:6-7, 10-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

When I was a pastoral intern in Nebraska, we gave a Bible to each third grader on a particular Sunday. The Bible is a good gift; it’s a source of hope, love, encouragement, inspiration, and life. I told the congregation: pay attention. We are giving children a knife. As we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”

Scripture is sharper than a sword. Like a scalpel, it cuts through what is diseased and damaged, cuts through lies and confusion, cuts through the stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. The stories of scripture surprise, disturb, confound and with good intention cut. We and our children need help and practice to listen, to receive powerful, sharp, healing words of life.

Consider today’s gospel text. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do? I can do it, earn it, achieve it, succeed and be safe. Just tell me what to do. Read More

A Day of Small Beginnings – Br. James Koester


Br. James KoesterFeast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85: 7-13
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80

It doesn’t take much: a young girl, barely a teenager, lowering her bucket into the village well, listening for the splash when it hits the water[1]; an old man, hands shaking with age, alone in the sanctuary of the Lord, spooning incense onto the red hot charcoal of the altar brazier[2]. It doesn’t take much, and suddenly there is a moment, a movement, a presence, a strange voice, a greeting: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’[3]; a command and a promise: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’[4]

It doesn’t take much, a young girl, barely a teenager, going about her daily chores; an old man, whose hands tremble with age, performing a duty he had done, perhaps countless times before, yet something is profoundly different. Read More

Do Not Be Afraid – Br. Lucas Hall


"Br.John 6:16-21

“It is I; do not be afraid.”1This is a familiar pattern. The Gospel narratives are full of instances where Jesus appears to his followers in a way that causes them terror. These experiences of fear seem to come in response to those moments in which Christ’s divinity is revealed, full and alive within his human vesture. In Mark’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women at the tomb that Jesus has arisen as he said; to this, we respond, “Alleluia,”2but this news prompted the women to flee from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are clearly astonished throughout the episode, but fall over in terror at the Father’s proclamation that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This fear is only calmed by Jesus touching the disciples and telling them “do not be afraid.”4

But then, Jesus’s revelation does not only cause fear among his disciples. In John’s Gospel, Christ asks the company of men who had come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies, “I am he.” At this, the men “stepped back and fell to the ground.”Falling to the ground implies an uncontrolled, instinctual response. Like a person whose hand touches the hot burner of a stove, this is not a thought-out reaction. Read More

The Gift of Disillusionment – Br. Keith Nelson


Br. Keith Nelson1 Corinthians 13:8-12 & Mark 8:22-26

Because children have a limited capacity to understand certain standard operating procedures of the adult world, they often come to conclusions that are very logical, but alas, entirely incorrect. National Public Radio’s Ira Glass calls this universal phenomenon “kid logic.”[i] For example, my younger sister was convinced that any building called a warehouse was a designated habitat for a werewolf, since these were the only two words she ever encountered with that particular prefix. Similarly, after overhearing an adult conversation featuring the improbable word “concubine” I became convinced that this was a rare species related to the porcupine. My parents patiently let us discover the errors of our “kid logic” on our own, and when we realized the inaccuracy of our theories, we were able to laugh at ourselves — and recalibrate. As children get closer to adolescence, they have a harder time with this gradual approach to revising their narratives. It’s a stage when many instances of “kid logic” collapse, often rapidly and ungracefully, in the face of new evidence about the world. That pre-teen struggle to integrate a vast range of new knowledge – along with the inner imperative to project a persona of effortless maturity to keep up with one’s peers – can make junior high school an unusually cruel boot-camp in disillusionment. Read More

Do Whatever He Tells You – Br. Lucas Hall


We continue our Epiphany preaching series, “Gifts for the Journey,” on following God’s call, focusing tonight on the gift of guides. Currently on display in the middle of our chapel is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Her hand gestures toward the child, in the classic iconographic depiction of the Hodegetria, Greek for, “She who shows the Way.” The tradition of iconography identifies St. Luke the Evangelist as the first iconographer, who painted the image of Mary while she was still alive; the icon he is said to have painted is the original Hodegetria, establishing this particular image of Mother and Child as both widely popular and a deeply reflective picture of who Jesus is, and, consequently, who Mary is. Jesus is the Way, and Mary is she who shows the way, her simple and silent hand gesture representing the life of the Virgin burning, brightly and endlessly, with the love and knowledge of God. In today’s Gospel reading, this is further encapsulated. At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the servants to do whatever her Son tells them. Just a few verses beforehand, Jesus has told the disciple Nathanael that greater signs of Jesus’s work and identity await. John, in his gospel, then describes the scene at Cana, and so gives us the first of these promised greater signs. In this scene, it is Mary who initiates the interaction, and it is Mary who points the way: “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary is ever-vigilant, always pointing to her Son, always guiding us to the Way.

This is no surprise or coincidence. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her, overshadowing her with the power of the Most High. It is the Spirit, dwelling in and among us right now, who is constantly pointing to Christ. It is the Spirit who, in quiet whispers and gestures, points to the Son as the Way to the Father. It is the Spirit who binds us, uniting us to one another in Christ as his body, uniting us to the Bridegroom as his Bride. It is the Spirit who points the Way, and teaches us how to point the Way, if only we let him, as Mary did so long ago.

And though Mary is the fullest expression of this divine gift of guidance, it was taking place long before. Soon, we will sing the Nicene Creed. About the Holy Spirit, the Creed says that “He has spoken through the Prophets.” The long line of prophetic witness is another manifestation of the Spirit’s guidance, inspiring others to be co-laborers with him in his guidance. Tonight’s first reading is from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament prophet. He is perhaps a mirror image of Jonah, whose single call to repentance of the people of Nineveh brought about repentance. Jeremiah has no such luck. He spends a lifetime prophesying to Israel of their sins and the impending destruction and exile coming from Babylon, to no avail. Jerusalem is sacked, the Temple is destroyed, and the Israelites are scattered throughout the empire. Jeremiah spends the rest of his life in exile, in Egypt; he is left with bitterness, and tears, and lamentation. But this destruction, this uprooting, is no final death. It is the clearing of the brush, the making of the paths in the wilderness. Despite their settling in the promised land of Canaan, the wilderness has not departed from the People of God. Thickets still obscure the sight of the watchers, thorn bushes still ensnare the ankles of the travelers, wandering and searching for the Way. After foretelling humanity’s long exile in the wilderness of Babylon, Jeremiah offers us a prophesy of sweet hope: that God has a plan for us, that he has not forsaken us, that he has not taken the Way from us, that he will restore his people to the place from which we were exiled. We will be shown out of the wilderness and into the Garden. The Spirit who blew over the waters at creation is still a wind, whipping over the wilderness, ever working his act of re-creation on a world and a race beset by the spiritual wilderness of the formless void. This whirlwind is the breath, the voice of the prophets in the desert, proclaiming to all who would listen: there is a way. Here is the Way.

But this prophetic speech is no ancient tongue. The Spirit has always guided the world, but at Pentecost, his descent onto the people Church is as fundamental as Christ’s Incarnation. At the Incarnation, God the Son became imbued with humanity. At Pentecost, humanity became imbued with God the Spirit. So the Spirit has not stopped moving over the waters, but now moves with more grace and more power, more gentle and more ferocious than ever before. Dwelling in us, imbuing us with gifts of divinity, the Spirit’s guidance persistently abides within us. He shows us the Way, and shows us how to imitate him in showing others the Way.

And this is, perhaps, the most likely place you may have encountered the Spirit. Often, it is very difficult to discern the Spirit’s guidance, thumping in our own chests. Instead, we look outward, toward our human fellow-travelers. In the voices of their mouths, we, often quite unexpectedly, hear the whistling of the Spirit’s divine gusts. If we are open and prepared, a single word from a friend or a lover or a stranger may strike a silent chord deep within us, might stand out as a bright and brilliant sign, pointing out the otherwise-obscured path. A conversation might take an unforeseen turn, and words that strike us as ridiculous at first glance are actually the work of the Spirit, doing his eternal labor of Creation, planting seeds in the chaotic uncertainty of our own lives, so that they might grow into trees lining the Way. Despite our best efforts to dismiss, ignore, or push aside this guidance, God assures us of the truth of his path.

And we are called to be guides, to be the co-laborers of the Holy Spirit. This is a path that requires serious discernment. But to be prophets, to emulate the Virgin Mary as She who shows the Way, is to live up to our full human vocation. We are to be guides just as we are guided. We are to travel the path of God while clearing the brush so that others may join us. The Way is narrow, and long, and often obscured, but we are assured of the Spirit’s guidance, and we are assured of our vocation to work with him in that guidance. Let us show forth our Way.

This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series

Reflection: Behold What You Are

Behold What You Are

Seeing Jesus & Ourselves in the Gospel According to John

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Keith Nelson reveals through his own experience how reading and praying with John’s Gospel can allow each of us to see the ordinary, challenging, and even painful events of our lives as signs imbued with meaning.



He came to center our senses in himself.

In his work On the Incarnation, the church father Athanasius wrote these words about Jesus, to describe one aspect of his cosmic purpose and mission: “He came to center our senses in himself.” It’s a simple and memorable phrase, with a pleasing, rhythmic consonance in English. I first encountered it in a library in my mid-twenties, while writing a paper for a graduate course. At first, it was simply the bright, felicitous thread that connected many conceptual beads into a strand that hung together. But I walked around repeating it over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Nor did I want to. My fingers caressed the beads, as it were, and the thread held. It held much more than I imagined. The words haunted me for days and whispered me to sleep at night. Whatever was happening, this was not about the theology that I thought I knew. God (?!) was apparently happening to me, and in the smoldering depths of my heart.

It armed me with the nerve I needed – a firm resolve with a trembling underbelly – to trundle into the snow on a Sunday morning in Advent of 2007, to find a seat in the back of a monastic chapel. I had come, vulnerably, to center my senses on him. I needed his body, his blood. To find a center for senses flung, dispersed throughout the wide world and home-sick for their Maker. As the moment I’d been waiting for got closer, I got more and more nervous. I thought about how I could make my exit without anyone noticing. But then, as the bread and wine were lifted high, I heard the words from behind the altar:

Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.

I think my mouth literally fell open.
It sounds so painfully earnest to put it this way, but Jesus Christ changed my life that day.

Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.

In those tumultuous early days of my adult reconversion, I showed all the symptoms of a lovesick man. I cried for seemingly no reason, other than the inexplicable gratitude and subtle grace that seemed to lead me through each hour. I found myself gazing at anything and everything with a thirsty wonder, drinking in the miracle of its simple being. And I did something I hadn’t done since childhood: I read the Gospel. Over and over and over. I slept with my Bible under my pillow. Not since those childhood summers spent in Vacation Bible School at Hunter Street Baptist Church (Hoover, Alabama) had I spent so much time poring over the Word. Only this time, it really spoke. He really spoke: in me, to me, through me, around me.

And the words that spoke to me with the most bewildering clarity and burned with the most intuitive truth were those from the Gospel of John.

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.1

A Person – the Son of God – was making himself known in my heart, taking the driver’s seat after years of quietly looking out the back window as a passenger, so quietly that I often forgot he was there. Quiet Jesus, taking pictures and making sketches and letting the road trip simply sink in while I determined the itinerary. Now, as he drove the car and I examined all that he had been doing in silence, he began to speak. As I listened, I felt a fuller expression of my own Personhood being brought to ground and sifted to surface. I heard my heart’s reply: “Jesus, I love you. This makes no sense. But I love you. Let’s drive anywhere you want. Just keep driving.”

My journey of faith has mellowed and matured since those earliest days of conscious re-connection with Jesus. But the Gospel of John remains at the center of our relationship. As a member of a monastic community with a singular devotion to this Gospel, it suffuses my daily, lived experience as a follower of Jesus. But it also breaks into – erupts into – the daily, as sparks of new inspiration find tinder and crackle to Life.

Monastics throughout the centuries have heartily commended reading and praying with John’s gospel as a sure path to intimacy with God in Jesus. They have found in its pages a central source of inspiration in seeking and discovering a life of mystical union with Christ, realizing by way of their monastic call the birthright of all Christians by our baptism. There is something more deeply, instinctually, intuitively transformative about John the longer I travel this monastic way. Why is this so? At its heart, monastic life is just the ordinary Christian life lived within a very particular frame, according to a distinctive rhythm, and under vows. But that frame, that rhythm, and those vows are designed to saturate the monastic mind, heart, and will with the Life and Light of Christ, to the degree that something extraordinary begins to suffuse and transfigure the ordinary. Everyday occurrences, objects, and interactions speak a living Word that, over time, become the nouns and verbs of a language.

Likewise, at the heart of John’s gospel we find Jesus continually stepping into similarly ordinary interactions and handling ordinary objects, but in doing so, transforming them into signs that reveal the truth of who Jesus is and who we are becoming in him. The powerful, experiential truth I glimpsed in my first encounter with SSJE – through participation in the Eucharist – was a moment of glory revealed by a sign in this Johannine sense.


Everyday occurrences, objects, and interactions speak a living Word that, over time, become the nouns and verbs of a language.

In John, we are initiated into a wondrous Life of being-and-becoming along with the disciples by means of the signs Jesus performs. The Johannine community developed such a sensitive receptivity to the significance of Jesus’ words and actions, gestures and relationships, that they would never experience the world he redeemed the same way again. They became sign-readers, utterly convinced that “life is full of meaning in union with God.”2 In John’s prologue, we hear whispers of Christ’s cosmic role: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (Jn 1:3-4). This suggests that meaning is literally hidden in plain sight, and that Life and Light are never far beneath the surface of things. This is part of what makes John’s gospel an especially illuminating path toward seeing Jesus and seeing ourselves as we read and pray with the Fourth Gospel. John wants to give us the Rosetta Stone to decipher that divine language, to make us light-bearers and life-revealers in a world hungry for meaning and thirsty for grace.

In order to plumb the Johannine meaning of the word “signs” at greater depth, it will help to explore some scriptural scholarship here. Bear with me, the lens I’m looking through may feel clunky, but I think it helps us to see the stunning, three-dimensional relevance of Johannine signs in a whole new way.

The Greek word translated as signs in most Bibles is semeia. I prefer, along with scholar Sandra Schneiders, the translation “symbol.” Schneiders’ definition of the word semeia in John is, well, a mouthful, but it has been a crucial key to my understanding of their powerful significance. She uses the word symbol to mean “a sensible reality which renders present to and involves a person subjectively in a transforming experience of transcendent mystery.”3 Symbols are not “signs” in the sense that we traditionally use that word, because a symbol opens us to the wide horizon of meaning and relationship with the Divine, rather than pointing to a single, absent or invisible concept. She points out the breath-taking truth that Jesus is thus the essential Symbol (semeion) of God, in that the “Son of the Father” makes sensibly real and personally accessible the transcendent reality of “the Father who sent him.”

And Jesus is a Symbol who saves by generating symbols of himself. When Jesus unexpectedly turns water to wine at a wedding banquet or heals a man born blind, he is, on the level of reality that we can see and touch, enacting what we might initially call a “miracle.” But while the sudden surprise and wonder these semeia evoke is significant, it cannot be the bedrock of a mature faith, and the eye of the believer must gaze more intently. Mature faith for John continues to receive and interpret the semeia at deeper levels of fullness, through times of both joy and challenge. In signs, over time, we catch a glimpse of not only a miraculous thing happening in front of us, but also one happening within us, as our selves are transformed in ways more miraculous than mere water into wine.

The first followers of Jesus experienced these semeia and responded by placing their wholehearted trust in him, though the full flowering of that trust unfolded in a way unique to each disciple. There is a repeated, dialectical movement – sometimes tense, sometimes tender – in which Jesus responds to a basic creaturely need such as bread, water, eyesight, or loving community by offering himself as that Thing. This catalyzes in the needy one – if their need is great enough and their boundaries are open enough to Jesus’ charged, unconventional, symbolic communication – a recognition of unconscious, spiritual need (“I was hungry, but now that you mention it, I’m also hungry for belonging”). John’s Jesus moves deftly and unflinchingly from offering miraculous loaves aplenty to the tantalizing promise of “bread from heaven,” to saying “I am that Bread. Eat me!”

This journey through signs is unique to John’s gospel, and it’s part of what makes this gospel so rich for aiding in the transformative inner work of the Christian life. The reality of God – mediated to us by the “symbols” that flow from Christ and the “Symbol” that is Christ – breaks in upon the contours of ordinary Christian life as we read and pray with this gospel. Together, we grow in our capacity to discern these transfiguring signs in the details of everyday discipleship. The glorified and risen Christ continues to work these signs in you and me: “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25). What close encounters with God’s gracious signs have interrupted your own journey, shown you something new about Jesus, and shown you yourself in a new light?


Jesus is a Symbol who saves by generating symbols of himself.

The recession of the American economy that began in 2009 left me – like so many others – struggling not only to earn a living, but suffering from internalized feelings of failure. I had made it through several buoyantly optimistic rounds of interviews and had come excruciatingly close to job offers. The offers had de-materialized late in the game and had left me truly struggling to discern God’s plan. As a result, I had also begun to grapple with periodic depression and low self-esteem. I had a healthy sense of realism about the particular offer I was waiting on this time, to teach high school history, but after an unusually promising day-long visit to the school, I couldn’t help but believe that I’d gotten this one. When I finally got the rejection call, I felt gutted like a fish and, after the shock wore away, I dissolved in a flood of tears. I was wound so tightly in a self-narrative of failure that all I could feel was gut-wrenching lack.

To make matters worse, I had been planning a large birthday party for my closest friend all week, and I had only a couple hours to pull myself together and make a party happen. “I don’t have the inner resources to handle this tonight,” I told myself. “How can I possibly summon the joy, let alone the composure, to help host a party? What about my pain?” I arrived at my friend’s house and threw myself into chopping dinner ingredients, letting my friend and co-host handle the early guests.

It became clear that there wasn’t going to be enough wine, so I trudged out the door and down the street to buy some, feeling like a true martyr. It was a late spring, Friday evening. I heard the bumping bass of bachata music coming from the house on the corner, where a large Dominican family gathered almost every Friday. Beaming old folks and posturing teenagers and bare-footed kids all danced and ate and talked at the same time. Their passion to be alive on a spring Friday evening spilled out onto the porch and wafted down the sidewalk. Though I’d passed this weekly gathering before, this time its joy felt contagious. With the comfortable weight of a bottle of cheap merlot nestled inside my backpack, I returned to my friend’s house.

When we sat down to dinner, and I uncorked the wine, it suddenly became clear to me that Jesus was there. The story of the wedding feast at Cana flooded into my heart (Jn 2:1-11). At the wedding of a poor peasant couple, the wine has run out. The couple and their families are surely embarrassed. What’s a wedding without wine? Mary addresses to her son a simple plea, “They have no wine.” Her son replies, “Woman, what does that have to do with you and me? My hour has not yet come.” She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” At the wedding feast – the first of seven signs that Jesus performs in John’s gospel – Jesus transforms lack into more-than-enoughness.

At the birthday party, I experienced this same transformation. In the course of dinner conversation over that uncorked and flowing bottle, I poured out my own heart. I chose to be fully present to the reality of my own suffering and, in its midst, to participate in joy by celebrating – really celebrating – the life of a beloved friend. I certainly saw Jesus in the sign given in that bottle, but I also discovered something about myself: The presence of Christ in my life did not depend upon my mood, my “successes” or my “failures.” He was holding the cup of my pain. Where before there had been only lukewarm water, I was now filled to the brim with the good wine of his Life. Cheap merlot never tasted so delicious. The whole experience unfolded as it did because that particular story from John had soaked down into my heart, and Christ stood ready to reveal a new sign by bringing that text into transformative dialogue with the ups and downs of my life. I could see it – and Jesus – and myself – in a whole new light.


I could see it – and Jesus – and myself – in a whole new light.


In the ninth chapter of John, Jesus singles out a man blind from birth and offers him sight. The man receives his sight – and this interaction numbers among the traditional seven “signs” in the gospel – but he also receives much more. By choosing to claim his new sight as his own in the midst of a dauntingly complex and antagonistic new world, he receives the grace of insight or illumination, a foretaste of glory.

John’s blind man is given a rather specific set of instructions. Jesus “spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man, and said to him, ‘Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (the name means ‘one who has been sent’). So he went off and washed and came back able to see.” The gift of sight for this man begins with Jesus’ direct, earthy, tactile initiation, but depends for its completion upon an act that the man himself must perform, an act with clear baptismal overtones. Then there is that subtle but startling detail: the man is sent by Jesus to Siloam, which means ‘the one who has been sent.’ In John, Jesus refers often to ‘the Father who sent me.’ The blind man acts as one sent by the Son. This synergy and even co-identification between the man and Jesus is crucial, and points to a breath-taking reality of the Johannine vision of discipleship. The disciple who persists in the hard Way of Jesus and becomes a ‘child of light’ acts as a direct emissary and representative of the Son in the same way that the Son is the direct emissary of the Father. As a light-bearer in a dark world, like Jesus, he or she will be brought into conflict with darkness, which will try to overtake the light at every turn.

A key to my own relationship with Jesus in this passage has been a simple question: What was the first thing this man saw when his sight returned? And that inner Voice of prayer that speaks in my own primordial darkness, that source of my own dawning illumination, whispers to me: He saw himself.

In contrast to other stories of blindness healed by Jesus, where the newly sighted open their eyes and see the face of their Healer, this man first encounters Jesus as a voice and a touch, and is sent away to wash his eyes. In a world where mirrors were rare, costly, and often crude, a calm, reflective pool of water would have been an excellent means for discerning one’s own likeness. After the ripples in the pool subside, I see this man seeing his own reflection. For the first time. As the first thing he sees. I think this event becomes the Big Bang of this man’s spiritual universe: the realization that his was a face seen and loved by Jesus in the primordial darkness and in the darkness of social alienation and unrealized personhood that had been the sum total of his life until this moment.

I’d been praying with the ninth chapter of John in the second year of my novitiate when I received some unexpected advice from my spiritual director. He said, “I’d like you to spend some time each day looking at your own face in the mirror as a sign revealing God’s glory.” I had been sharing with him how the practice of simply, silently gazing on Christ’s face in love had become an intuitive impulse in my meditative prayer time. He suggested I do the same with my own face, really cultivating the recognition that Christ sees my face as a beautiful revelation of God. This was not an easy practice for me. Frankly, years of bullying and abuse by peers during my adolescence has left me with chronic low self-esteem. While today I feel confident in my own skin and deeply loved, those ancient feelings of not-enoughness and adolescent self-consciousness still come knocking now and then. Gazing at my face in this way has been a powerful, prayerful aid to seeing myself as I really am: beloved of God.

The man born blind does not see Jesus as he really is until the end of the story, a moment of illumination awakened by Jesus’ question, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” But his initiation into that journey toward beholding the face of Jesus is begun in this glimpse of himself as he really is. Perhaps he could have said, with author Annie Dillard, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”4 Acting from this core truth, the man is given the courage to declare of Jesus: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. I know one thing, that though I was blind, now I see.” Because he clings to that one thing that Jesus has done to him and for him by means of that life-changing sign, he knows who he is. In the same way that Jesus knows “where he has come from and where he is going” because all of his knowing proceeds from being utterly known by the Father, this man has been known by the Son. But his gaze does not stop there. Because his gaze is undeterred by every distraction and menace placed in its path, he will gaze upon Jesus in worship, the only kind of gaze which sees Jesus as he really is.


“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.5

The words spoken, signs performed, and glory revealed by Jesus – in short, the whole of his personhood – are oriented toward the initiation of relationship with you and me. They exist for the sole purpose of bringing us into abiding union with him and, through him, the God he calls “the Father who sent me.” If “having faith in God” as assent to the proposition that God is real and Jesus is God has been a stumbling block in your engagement with the Way of Christ, consider the following perspective on the verb “to believe” in John:

It is the fundamental openness of heart, the basic readiness to see and to hear what is really there, the fidelity to one’s experience no matter how frightening or costly it appears to be, the devotion to being that refuses to tamper with reality in order to preserve the situation with which one is familiar...

To believe in Jesus is to accept him, to identify with him, to follow him, to grow in discipleship....This is not a theological position, an assent of the mind. It is a life stance which could only be legitimate if Jesus is indeed who he claims to be, the one sent by the Father.6

You know that experience when the sunlight hits a clear windowpane in such a way that you can simultaneously see through it to the landscape beyond, as well as see your own reflection? I think of that experience as a sign. Jesus is that clear windowpane. Without the window, I couldn’t see the landscape beyond; there would be only a wall. Without the light reflected in just the right way, I couldn’t see my own reflection. As Christians, Jesus is our window onto the Beyond, displaying a clear and breath-taking view of God’s glory and training our eyes on the far horizon of eternity. But he is also our mirror, the one in whom we “behold what we are,” in whom we taste and experience our truest identity as participants in the divine nature, beloved of the Father. That light reflected in just the right way that I can perceive both visions at once is the gospel – and for me, the gospel of John in particular. The other gospels are sources of abundant Life for what they tell me about Jesus, especially the teachings by which I seek to pattern my life. John is that strange and glorious slant of light that shows me what can be told in no other way.

Reading and praying with John’s gospel can allow each of us to see the ordinary, challenging, and even painful events of our lives as signs imbued with meaning. As we read the signs in the mirror and through the window, we travel a path of increasing intimacy with Jesus and clearer knowledge of ourselves. Seeing Jesus and seeing ourselves, we are gifted and graced with deepening glimpses of God’s glory.

1. [John 1:18]

2. [“The Word of God in Preaching,” Ch. 19, The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1997), 39.]

3. [Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999), 66.]

4. [Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Collins, 1974), 36.]

5. [John 20:30-31]

6. [Schneiders, 88.]

About Br. Keith Nelson


Br. Keith Nelson came to SSJE in February of 2014 and professed his Initial Vows in July of 2016. Raised in both southern New Jersey and central Alabama and educated at Kenyon College (B.A. 2004) and Harvard Divinity School (M.T.S 2008), Keith has lived in the Boston area since 2008. For five years he was a committed member of The Crossing at St. Paul’s Cathedral as well as a parishioner at Trinity Church, Newton Center. He has worked as a high school theology and history teacher, a teacher and director of adult English classes for recent Chinese immigrants, and most recently as the parish, building, and financial administrator at Emmanuel Church, Boston. He has had a life-long passion for drawing and is an avid reader of ascetical theology, particularly fourteenth-century Middle English. He loves being a monk and a follower of Jesus.