This remarkable chapter, Jesus’s final message to his disciples as a group, gathered together for the Last Supper, is the culmination of John’s record of Jesus’s gradual revealing of his identity as it develops through his Gospel. The Gospel’s magisterial first chapter begins with its climactic ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … we have beheld his glory’ (John 1:14), and is succeeded, episode by episode, by the long sequence of signs, deeds, and teachings through which Jesus gradually reveals his true glory to the disciples. Slowly they, the disciples, and we the reader, realize that this human, embodied person, Jesus, is the Son of God the Father.
And now, in John 17, the evening before his passion and death, Jesus extrapolates forward to the ultimate revelation of his glory that will become evident in his cross and resurrection, and he prays that all those who have grasped (or perhaps, better, been grasped by) his kinship with the Father may have the same relationship with each other as he has with the Father, a relationship of mutual love. Thus at the culmination of the Fourth Gospel, John reveals not only how the glory of God is mediated through the flesh of the Son, but also calls for the disciples (and thus all Christians) to manifest the same relationship of love for each other as Jesus has with the Father.
And even when Jesus has returned to the Father, there will not be an absence between him and the disciples, for the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who has been celebrated in the previous chapter (John 16:7; cf. John 14:16), will be with them, reminding them of Jesus’s presence, encouraging them to glorify the Father through the Son in worship (doxology—literally ‘giving glory’).
For Christians today, how is this relationship between Jesus and the Father as expressed by the Spirit best communicated? Given the emphasis in the Fourth Gospel on seeing (as opposed to blindness), and on glory, which is often expressed using visual imagery, the visual arts are potentially a valuable and valid means of communicating the glory of God.
For example, in the work of Jackson Pollock, we see a profound analogy for the relationship between Father and Son in an artist so totally identified with his artwork that the artwork is the artist; the artist’s vulnerable inner self, scarred yet beautiful, is awesomely manifest in the artwork. This is, perhaps, mainly because his ‘paintings’ are as much action as they are object. An object is inevitably distinct from its creator, whereas an action implicates the enfleshed being of the person who performs it. Jesus’s life perfectly expresses the glory of the Father.
Henri Matisse’s Dance takes up this sense of movement necessary to any potentially great work of religious art. His dancers invite us (like John Bunyan’s pilgrim) to shed the burden of sin and shame, to enter the paradise of open-hearted relationship characteristic of the profound unity for which Jesus prayed on behalf of all who behold his glory, and to dance out in joyful, generous, and carefree expression their mutual love. They invite us to join the round-dance of the redeemed to which all are invited by the Spirit.
Sean Scully’s triptych is also a dance, albeit in a different mode. The complex inter-relationship of the three differentiated panels creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The dance of the complex elements of the triptych presents a unity in diversity—just as Jesus prayed that the always-fissiparous fellowship of diverse believers that is the church might be united in worship of the glory of God revealed in the flesh of his Son to which they are invited by the call of the Spirit.
Scully’s triptych is a modern day analogue of Andrey Rublyov’s great icon of the hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18). An icon is not only an object but also a gaze—an icon initiates a relationship with the viewer. A triptych inevitably presents a subtle hierarchy (the central panel is unconsciously read as prominent) but a good artist can use this to create a dynamic relationship between the three panels, so that the eye constantly moves across the work, following the ‘dance’ of the panels. Scully’s work here invitingly mirrors the complex prayer of those who together have glimpsed Jesus’s enfleshed presence as the final revelation of the divine glory of the Father and who respond to the invitation of the Spirit, caught up in ever-changing contemplation of the mystery of God, and the desire to express that mystery in worship and in mutual love.
17 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, 2since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. 4I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; 5and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made.
6 “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me, and they have kept thy word. 7Now they know that everything that thou hast given me is from thee; 8for I have given them the words which thou gavest me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from thee; and they have believed that thou didst send me. 9I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; 10all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. 18As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
20 “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. 24Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. 25O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. 26I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.”