Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Michaelmas & St Bartholomew/Nathanael

September 29, The Feast of St Michael and All Angels:

In the Gospel mandated by the Lectionary for today, John 1:45-51, Philip tells Nathanael that "We have found the Messiah... Jesus of Nazareth;" Nathanael replies with what sounds like a proverb: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" When Jesus sees Nathanael approach, he calls him "an Israelite in whom there is no guile." "Where did you get to know me?" Nathanael asks. "I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you." This is apparently enough to get Nathanael to exclaim, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus asks: "You believe because I told you, I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this: you will see the angels of heaven ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This little exchange attached to today's Feast often strikes one as a bit of a stretch at first; the story of Nathanael's call is the main point, and the bit about the angels seems an afterthought. It's widely taken to be an intentional echo of the passage in Genesis 28:10–19, in which Jacob dreams of a ladder or stairway between earth and heaven, with the angels going to and fro upon it; Jesus implicitly declares himself to be this ladder in some fashion, but just what this identity means is obscure.

Nathanael is often identified with the synoptics' Batholomew, (who, like Nathanael, is always paired with Philip), since John and only John mentions Nathanael and only the synoptics refer to Batholomew; but of course this has not kept many (including St Augustine) from thinking there are two people here. I am, myself, a Nathanael=Bartholomew guy, and I'll try to show why a bit later.

There is a hymn frequently sung on Michaelmas: Allelulia to Jesus, Who died on the tree, / and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me, / and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me. The tree on which Christ died, the cross, is itself a ladder between heaven and earth, and as tree it recapitulated the tree in the center of the garden, which is also the world tree, the tree whose roots are in the underworld and whose branches are in heaven. (Sometimes, mythologically, this is inverted). This tree, axis mundi, comes with fruit (of knowledge, of immortality, or both), a woman, a spring, and serpent. I'm not going to list the occasions of this motif; it is ubiquitous, and one does not need to be a slave to pop Jungianism to accept that this widespread occurrence is significant.

Since we are in the matrix of the Hebrew scriptures, the tree which most concerns us is the one in Eden. In Genesis 3, the serpent is called "the most subtle of all the creatures," "subtle" here being a pun (in Hebrew) on smoothness, a connotation which even then bore on the serpent's smooth-tongued capacity to deceive; but it is also a pun on the nakedness of the man and the woman. These two are "smooth" because their skin is exposed; and the snake's smoothness, too, involves its ability to shed its old, rough skin for a shiny, slick new one.

Jesus' description of Nathanael as "an Israelite in whom there is no guile" refers to this entire complex of notions. What is an Israelite? A descendant of Israel, of course; Israel being Jacob, who saw the ladder and all those angels going up and down. Nathanael's name means "God has given," and what God had given was understood above all to be the particular land upon which they lived, a bequest whose legacy we know to this day. It is in the ladder dream that Jacob hears the voice of God declaring this gift for the first time: "the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants."

But what distinguished Jacob was precisely his smoothness; not only his trickery with Esau--a trickery which is turned back on him by Laban--but also the literal smoothness of his skin, which he and Rebekkah must guilefully disguise in order to deceive blind Isaac, in the story immediately preceding the dream of the ladder. "An Israelite in whom there is no guile" is thus (to put the matter no doubt too strongly) a kind of counter-Jacob. "An Israelite in whom there is no guile" is a kind of colloquial rejoinder to Nathanael's skepticism that there could be "anything good from Nazareth."

How this skepticism is broken through is strange. "Where did you get to know me?" "I saw you under the fig tree." "Rabbi! You are the messiah!" What on earth is going on here? I won't claim to provide the answer to this question, but I hope to explicate what I think are come relevant bits of its context, and perhaps to its pertinence to the Feast of St Michael.

The fig tree is perhaps not the Tree (of Knowledge), but it is the only fruit mentioned by name and genus in the Genesis account: "And they knew that they were naked (="smooth"); and they took fig leaves and wove aprons for themselves." The fig tree thus provides that under which one hides one's smoothness. These aprons (they still figure in the LDS Temple ceremony) are replaced later by "garments of skin" given by God. But Nathanael is not "smooth" in this way; he has no deceit, "no guile."

"Under the fig tree," according to some exegetes, also implies prayer and the study of Torah; according to this line of reading, the subtext is that Nathanael was engaged in some devotional piety when Jesus observed him. This may involve angelic mediation, as later elements of synagogue liturgy imply. Jewish tradition is ambivalent about angels, but Christianity is eloquent on them and sees (I contend) the angels as not just mediators between Heaven and Earth but as, in some sense, the very media of prayer or even of theological vision itself; the liturgy is seen as recapitulating or becoming one with the worship given by angels in the presence of God, who are frequently said (e.g. by Evagrios of Pontos in his 153 texts on Prayer) to be the agents of the "energization" of our prayers (see, e.g., text 76).

To be sure, neither Jewish nor Christian tradition is especially interested in angels for their own sake. Evagrios tells an anecdote of a monk who remained steadfast at prayer, even though two angels appeared to him; and the desire to head off any such interest clearly motivates the aforementioned ambivalence of the Rabbis (I believe there is, for instance, not a single mention of angels in the Mishnah). But the image of angels "ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" clearly identifies Jesus himself with the link--tree or ladder--which makes this concourse of energies between earth and heaven possible.

There is a further association, which I mention despite its cultural distance: the Bodhi tree, sacred in Vedic and Buddhist tradition, is also a fig, ficus religiosa; so "under the fig tree" is also where Gautama Buddha attained his enlightenment. This will of course rightly strike many as coming from far afield, but the archetypal emblem of the ascent of awareness from the base of the tree is bound up with the previously-mentioned set of images. It is here that Newagey enthusiasts will rummage about for the kundalini serpent rising from the base of the spine; or (closer to the Judaic matrix of the New Testament) of the ascent from the lower state of the soul called nefesh (frequently interpreted as the serpent in the Kabbalah) up the Sephirotic Tree of Life. These correspondences are indisputably inspired by free-association; whether they ought to be dismissed as "mere" free-association is a different question, but a methodological argument defending them would be a separate blog post.

The last connection that belongs here hinges on the aforementioned identity between Nathanael and Bartholomew. There is a famous depiction of Bartholomew by Michaelangelo in his Sistine Chapel Last Judgment. He is holding his own skin. This is because tradition has it that he was martyred by being flayed. That is, the tradition has preserved a connection between Bartholomew/Nathanael and the shedding skin motif, which thus connects directly to the Genesis story of the Fall. It should be noted that not every version says that Bartholomew was flayed--some stories speak only of his beheading--so there is some reason to think that this detail was intended to resonate with this wider constellation of notions going back to the Hebrew connotations of guile/smoothness.

I might mention, too, that Michaelangelo is painted a recognizable self-portrait on the skin of Bartholomew. Considering the artist's name, this may not just be the painter's exercise of his artistic prerogative. It is possible he knew what he was doing.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting Post.
    Yes the days are drawing in. The fig tree that you mention, ficus religiosa has a way of auto air layering its boughs which droop to the ground and create another tree which is a good symbol of the recursive aspect of wisdom. The fruiting fig tree in these Northern climes requires that its roots be restricted for a crop to be taken.

    "Roots in the air, branches underground, that is how this old fig tree grows. Endlessly and simply, everything comes home to it, nothing goes outside it." (Katha Upanisad)