Amen, amen I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
John 1: 51
In John’s gospel, Jesus himself gives a very early and direct revelation of his identity. He alludes to the story of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28: 12: 16-17. Jacob dreams of a ladder set on earth with its top reaching to heaven “and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” When Jacob awakens he says: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” In this light the claim of Jesus is clear. He is the house of God and the gate of heaven.
When we were children we were told that we each had our own guardian angel whom God gave us to look out especially for us. There was, at least at times, an immense consolation and encouragement to realize that we were so important to God that an actual emissary from God was assigned to protect us and to accompany and to help us through the events of our lives. Since God and heaven were at such a distance from us, we needed a a messenger and delegate from heaven to accompany us “down here” on earth.
In the dialogue between Jesus and Nathaniel in today’s gospel, we hear Nathaniel speak out of the same cosmology, Nathaniel proclaims a profession of faith in Jesus: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” This leads Jesus, however, to correct Nathaniel. Jesus is not another wonder worker or messenger from a distant heaven. He is rather one on whom the angels “ascend and descend”; he is the meeting of heaven and earth, God with us.
Jesus is not a messenger who “speaks about” God and heaven. Jesus is the presence and love of God in our midst. Many of us find ourselves pondering what it is about Pope Francis that evokes such a sincere, joyful, and hopeful response among so many during his recent visit to the United States. There are, of course, many factors that contribute to the effect of his presence. But, undoubtedly, one of them is that he comes among us and encounters us not as a representative or apologist for a particular ideology or tradition, but rather as the mission and presence of Jesus among us. As he touches and blesses those of us who are ill and suffering, as he speaks a common word of love and challenge to those who are divided, he draws us with him into “the house of God and the gate of heaven.”
When we were children we needed to be cared for, protected, and to know that God, who was a distant object, had interest in and love for us. But as Christ is formed in us, we now realize that our life is the life and mission of Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven is within and among us, and we are called to be its servants and instruments. We are called not just to announce or teach a message of God’s love and presence; we are called to be it. St John of the Cross says that “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” (Letter 26) In Jesus, the love and mercy of God is present. We know that love directly as it passes through us as a gift to others.
I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion”.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, I, 27