Posted June 3, 2020
There is a brief narrative in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel where two of John the Baptist’s disciples start walking behind Jesus. Jesus turns and asks them: ‘What are you looking for? ‘ And they reply: ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ Jesus replies: ‘Come, and you will see.’ And, St John tells us: ‘They went and saw where he was staying and they stayed with him that day. It was about the tenth hour [when they arrived].’
Interpreters differ as to how long these two men are supposed to have stayed with Jesus. Many think that the ‘tenth hour’ means 4 pm; and some think that ‘they stayed with him that day’ means they stayed until evening the following day (a day being calculated from sunset to sunset). Certainly, theirs was more than a quick visit; and what is in any case very surprising is that the narrator reports not a single word of what was said while they were with Jesus. His only concern is to tell us that the disciples saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed. It seems a rather pointless narrative.
But like many of the narratives in St John’s Gospel ours has a deeper meaning than at first appears. We get near the deeper meaning of our narrative by taking note of that simple word ‘where?’ ‘Where are you staying?’ ‘They saw where he was staying and they stayed.’ Be attentive when you come across that simple word ‘where’ and the related words ‘whence’ and ‘whither’ in St John’s Gospel. They are sacred pointers to the awesome mystery. They refer not to physical location but to the mystery of Jesus’ origins and his eternal abode. They are part of St John’s code language for alluding to Jesus’ intimate communion with the Father: his being in the ‘bosom’ of the Father from eternity.
Think of some other passages in St John’s Gospel where this code language is used. ‘You do not know whence I am, nor where I am going’, Jesus tells the Jews. At the wedding at Cana, the master of ceremonies praised the superb wine but did not know ‘whence it was‘. ‘The wind blows where it will’, Jesus tells Nicodemus: but you do not know whence it comes or where it is going.’ ‘Whence have you this living water?’, the woman at the well asks Jesus. ‘Now that’s a good one!’, the blind man says, sarcastically, to the Pharisees: ‘You do not know whence he is, and yet he has opened my eyes.’ ‘Where are you from?’, Pilate asks Jesus. And Jesus does not answer. St John and his community know why Jesus does not answer: because the answer to the question about Jesus’ origins cannot be shared with outsiders. It is the sacred truth, known only to Jesus and to those to whom Jesus has come to reveal it.
So, when the two disciples ask ‘Where are you staying?’ we insiders know that St John intends us to understand the question to be referring not to physical location but to the awesome secret of Jesus’ eternal abode. And they saw where he was staying and they stayed. The two disciples must have experienced something of the secret of Jesus’ intimacy with the Father. It would be hardly surprising if they stayed that evening and that night and most of the next day! Once you have experienced being ‘with Jesus, where he is’, you never want to be anywhere else. (For those familiar with St John’s code language, the verb translated ‘stay’ in our narrative – literally ‘remain’ – will more readily evoke divine indwelling than temporary lodgings: ‘Remain in me as I also remain in you.’)
The two disciples must have got a foretaste of that grace which, later in the Gospel, Jesus will ask his Father to give to them permanently: ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world.’ ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’
This brief narrative of the two disciples, quite meaningless on the surface, tells us how St John understood the essence of Christianity. The narrative is about people in search of meaning, who are looking for security and permanence; people who at last discover in Jesus what they have been looking for, who taste something of his mysterious, enduring intimacy with God, which fills their minds and hearts with heaven, which intoxicates them with the desire to experience more of it – to remain there permanently. ‘They saw where he remained and they remained that day with him’: no, not just that day, but the rest of their lives; and then into eternity. That is the luminous centre of St John’s Gospel; and for St John and his community it is the essence of our religion.
If St John in the narrative parts of his Gospel confines himself to sacred pointers to the awesome mystery, elsewhere in his Gospel he is more direct. Already at the beginning of the Gospel he proclaims, programmatically: ‘The Word was with God and the Word was God’: the ‘only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father’. Then, in chs 14-17 (Jesus’ ‘Farewell Discourse’) St John has Jesus lift the veil on his relationship with the Father, but still only partially, still enigmatically, for the disciples ‘could not bear it as yet’: only the Spirit of Truth whom the Father and the Son would send to them would ‘lead them into all truth’.
Over the centuries the Trinity has lost something of its ineffable divine mystery, and – perhaps one could say – of its enchanting evocation of personal intimacy, as theologians and apologists replaced biblical language with philosophical concepts; and later popular preachers reduced the mystery to an arithmetical conundrum which they sought to resolve by appeal to supposed analogies from the natural world (shamrock, and all that). On this feast of the Holy Trinity let us go rather to St John’s Gospel, to be ravished by glimpses of the secret awesome mystery of Jesus’ eternal abode ‘in the bosom of the Father’. We are being invited to look forward with thrill and passion to the moment when Jesus’ prayer for us, that ‘we may be with him, where he is’, will be eternally fulfilled.
Fr Tom Deidun
* For more homilies on the Trinity, see below Be imitators of God and God is three and God is one