The Jesuit Method
The feast of Sukkot -know as the Jewish Festival of Booths or Tabernacles- is a biblical feast usually celebrated during late September or late October -the date varies from year to year-. During the existence of the Jerusalem Temple it was one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals on which the Israelites were commanded to perform a pilgrimage to the Temple. Sukkot has a double significance. The one mentioned in the Book of Exodus is agricultural in nature – “Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end” (Exodus 34:22) – and marks the end of the harvest time and thus of the agricultural year in the Land of Israel. The more elaborate religious significance from the Book of Leviticus is that of commemorating the Exodus and the dependence of the People of Israel on the will of God (Leviticus 23:42-43). The holiday lasts seven days in Israel and eight in the diaspora. This is the context where Jesus makes a bold public declaration about himself on the last day of the feast. Just imagine for a moment this scene. Thousands of people gathered around the Temple of Jerusalem, celebrating one of their major festivals of the year -still shorter and smaller that the Bedford Park Festival- and then Jesus makes this declaration and divides the crowd and leads to a debate between officers of the peace sympathetic to him and “chief priests and Pharisees” who are hostile. A good way of getting into this text and grasp some of the profound meaning of it, is the Jesuit method of the biblical meditation, which is a mixt of contemplation and spiritual involvement in the scene. It is a full immersion experience that may give us the opportunity to play a threefold role: spectator, character in the scene and reader.
As a spectator you are watching the scene as someone who is in the middle of the crowd listening to Jesus’ declaration and seeing the reaction of people while he talks as well as reacting to what he says yourselves. What do they feel? How do they react to him? Who is this man who challenges the authority of the Pharisees and chief priests? Is he mad? Is he a prophet? They presumably marvel at the teaching he gives without having being learners from it.
At the same time, one can play one of the characters in the scene. One can be a chief priest, or a pharisee or one of Jesus’s disciples. What would one say or do?
Don’t forget that you are the reader of this gospel as well, which gives you a wonderful vista of the scene. As a reader, you know that Jesus is quite reluctant to be at the festival. He firstly says a plain no to his brothers who argue that he is not having enough publicity: “If you do these things, show yourself to the world” -they say. Interestingly Jesus refuses to go, because he says: “My time has not yet fully come”. Then he changes his mind and goes to the festival. The gospel does not tell us what made him change his mind. Instead, it does just stress that he goes in secret, not publicly. However, even that suddenly changes, because in the middle of the festival he goes up to the temple -not exactly a secret place to go- and begins to teach, which is certainly not a secret activity.
We may be feel entitled to ask: “What happened?” At a first glance, Jesus seems to be very inconsistent with his decision and action. At the same time, we may feel that there are far too many questions we cannot really answer while reading and meditating this gospel. What does he feel? Why does he change his previous decision? It looks like this need for preaching is so compelling that makes him unable to keep his own decision to avoid the danger to expose himself to those who want to kill him. Although this is not completely satisfying answer to one of our questions, this is certainly a possible explanation to Jesus’ action. What I would dare saying is that there is a deeper level of understanding, which makes John’s gospel an astonishing goldmine to grasp some of Jesus’s personality as well as a wonderful glimpse into his humanity. Jesus is entirely human when he makes a decision, and then changes his mind in two very different directions. Firstly when he says he won’t go to the festival, and then goes, and then decides to be there in incognito and then makes a bold public declaration about himself. Is it not that part of the human condition? This is actually a wonderful snapshot of Jesus’ humanity, a deeply and fascinating incarnational text.
One more thing to be said about this text, is that it reveals us two strong features of Jesus’ personality according to John’s gospel: he is deliberately provocative as well as clever in the way he uses the misunderstanding to teach a deeper truth. From the text it is not entirely clear to which healing miracle he is referring to, but does not really matter because this is a great opportunity for him to teach them about the source and reason of his reaching, which is the glory of God.
The small example I gave of these three level of interpretation, meditation and contemplation of the gospel don’t exclude, but rather wonderfully complement each other.
Again this is a marvelous full immersion experience, where we have the unique opportunity to grasp some of what it might be called “getting in tune with God”. The scriptures -John’s gospel particularly- are this goldmine where through meditation, reading and contemplation we immerse ourselves in body, spirit and mind and come out transformed, renovated and motivated in our lives. This is why I think that John’s gospel is so special because It may give us the opportunity to connect with Jesus’ personality and life without losing touch with his divinity. The experience then would be totally human and totally divine.