The other night I woke in the wee hours of the morn for no apparent reason. I lay there listening to Renata breathing softly and, beyond that, from outside the open window, to the low, constant hum of the city. There was no traffic, only the faint sound of building fans and heating units. As I listened I became aware of another, deeper and more far-off rumble, barely audible. Really it seemed to me more like the movement in my arteries, a pulse, but external and far away.
My mind turned to a hymn from my youth: This is my Father’s world and to my listening ears all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres….
It was Pythagoras who first identified that the pitch of a musical note is proportional to the length of the string that produces it. From this arose his concept of musica universalis or “music of the spheres”: the notion that because the sun, moon, planets and stars move in mathematical patterns, they too must produce an ever varying celestial hum or resonance, imperceptible to the human ear but nevertheless creating a context for the quality of life on Earth. The heavens and earth are, as it were, engaged in an eternal dance; sometimes the steps are as light as the skip of a fairy and in other seasons as heavy as goose-stepping boots.
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” These are the words of Jesus to Nathanael, who marvelled that Jesus had known he was sitting under a fig tree even though Jesus hadn’t seen him there himself. “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” Nathanael would soon learn, as many have since learned, that Jesus is an extraordinary focus of interaction between the heavens and earth.
Gentle reader, when the Gospel of John is in your hands, please don’t be too literal. The author didn’t mean for you to be so. Nathanael is a type of the nation of Israel, and of all wayward people; Jesus speaks for the divine. It was Augustine who recognized the presence of the fig tree as biblical short-hand symbolizing separation from the good intentions of God. Nathanael is found by his friend Philip “under the fig tree”, estranged from God’s vision and purposes. Philip invites him to “come and see” Jesus of Nazareth. When Nathanael opens himself to moving out of his old position (“come”) and toward a new perspective (“see”) he discovers a fresh paradigm, both enriching and mysterious.
“Come and see” is one of the keys to John’s Gospel. Earlier the disciples had asked Jesus where he was staying and he invites them to come and see. Jesus, the face of the divine invites us to participate in his life. Angels ascending.
And although the following chapters are full of stories of those who came and saw – Nicodemus, a religious man who came under the cover of night and could not see; the unnamed woman at the well, a disenfranchised individual who came in the noon-day sun and saw – these exact words, “come and see” are not repeated again in John’s Gospel until a critical encounter marking a reversal in the earthly – heavenly dialogue:
Jesus has shown up late for the funeral and interment of his friend Lazarus. Even though he had been alerted to Lazarus’ illness he had failed to come on time to do anything about it. When he finally does arrive, Lazarus is dead and buried; the family are upset with Jesus and distraught in their grief. “Were have you laid him?” Jesus asks of Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. “Come and see,” they reply. Here the tables are turned; now the divine is invited into the depths of human experience, indeed into the final and deepest humiliation of humanity, into the stench of death. A week later the invitation is honoured. Angels descending.
The deep, almost imperceptible rumble continued as I lay upon my bed. I had almost come to ignore it, drifting back into sleep when suddenly it was accompanied by another sound, small but clear and familiar: two long and lonely whistles of a train. I smiled, the mystery solved; a train, I love the sound of trains.
The work of God is all around me. This is my Father’s world. God’s presence in our world is all around if only I will shift my position and open my eyes. Creation sings of God’s goodness. And every once in awhile I catch the faintest of greetings rising above the music of the spheres and the beating of my own pulse. And I know that all is well.