‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46). If one of Jesus’s future disciples, Nathanael, had such a low opinion of Jesus’s home town, we may ask whether its inhabitants thought any better of it. Could anything wonderful emerge from the place? If so, what would it possibly look like?
While the word Mark uses for miracle in this passage is simply the common Greek word for ‘power’ (dunamis), our own word ‘miracle’ in its original Latin sense (miraculum) conjures up better the issue that Mark wishes to confront in his account of this incident: that recognizing significance is partly dependent on prior attitude, a readiness to respond to individuals and events at the very least with surprise, or in more spectacular cases with awe and wonder (the root meaning of the Latin word).
Nathan Coley’s light-and-text installation was first placed on the outskirts of the city of Stirling in central Scotland. Whether its citizens read the notice as no more than an endorsement of the unsurprising reality in which they lived or felt summoned to challenge Coley’s ambiguous message, I do not know. For some, perhaps, the work had the air of some kind of sad leftover from a carnival or fairground. An empty structure that might once have supported or witnessed something marvellous but was now abandoned.
Thanks to its subsequent central placement on the approach to a modern art gallery, visitors now find themselves encouraged to question the nature of modern and contemporary art in light of its statement. Such art often makes its mark through provocation and the unexpected. By this measure, Jesus’s whole life as recounted in the Gospels can also be likened to a work of art; he too provokes and surprises, challenging his audiences to discover more than what they believe they already know. But, whether it is the modern art gallery or Jesus that we face, our own expectations come under scrutiny too. Are we expecting too much or too little—from either?
In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas from which the story of the clay birds is derived, Joseph is represented as repeatedly attempting to deter Jesus from his miraculous deeds—unlike in other apocryphal infancy gospels (such as Pseudo-Matthew) which have Jesus’s parents in perpetual awe at the child’s behaviour. In this episode, he is joined by a Jewish neighbour in objecting to Jesus’s making clay birds on the sabbath. The illustration diverges from its text in not foregrounding Joseph: the conical Jewish hat and absence of halo suggest that the figure objecting to Jesus’s actions is a generically representative ‘Jew’. But whether in the form of parents or other adults, authority figures are shown (by text and image) not always to be right. In an expansion of those described by the Gospels as opposing Jesus to include neighbours and even family, there is an open invitation to us to think again about our assumptions.
James Tissot was fond of representing the miraculous (over thirty examples are to be found in the collection of watercolours in Brooklyn), so it is perhaps not altogether surprising that he makes the events of Jesus’s return to Nazareth something of a miracle too, with ‘the brow of the hill’ transformed into a vast gorge. While the Lukan narrative may foreground the wrath of the people of Nazareth, Tissot focuses instead on their puzzlement: how could Jesus have successfully escaped their clutches? Wonder at the mystery of the man has thus become of central importance in this composition.
Some of his friends doubted the sincerity of Tissot’s conversion. But if genuine, as seems plausible, we may see in it an openness that successfully reverses the pattern set by Mark. For the Evangelist those surrounding us in formative years can inhibit new perceptions. Tissot—despite his somewhat wild adult life—seems to have remained at least open to the ideas he had learned in his youth (his mother had been a devout Roman Catholic). Parents may not always be right, but maybe sometimes they are.
All three artworks may therefore challenge us to read the text, not principally as a condemnation of the narrowness of the people of Jesus’s home town, but rather as an encouragement—addressed also to us—to be open to the unexpected, to be ready to revise our expectations, and to find the wondrous still at work and, maybe, near at hand.
A similar challenge may face today’s Church. New interpretations of where revelation is pointing it continue to emerge, even when, like the people of Jesus’s Nazareth, the Christian community is tempted to think it has all the answers.
Elliott, J. K. (ed.). 1996. The Apocryphal Jesus: Legends of the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.19–30