SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST – In medio ecclesiae
Introit: (Ecclus 15) In the midst of the congregation he opened his mouth; and the Lord filled him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding: he arrayed him with a robe of glory. Ps. (92) It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord: and to sing praises unto thy Name, O Most Highest. Glory be … In the midst …
Collect: Merciful Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church: that it being enlightened by the doctrine of thy blessed Apostle and Evangelist Saint John may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty everlasting God, direct our actions according to thy good pleasure: that in the Name of thy Well-beloved Son we may be made worthy to abound in good works; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: grant that we, being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
OT Lesson: In those days: Moses besought the Lord God, and said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And the Lord said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: and I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back: but my face shall not be seen. (Exodus 33. 18-23)
Gradual: This saying went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. V. But, If I will that he tarry till I come: follow thou me.
Epistle: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (I John 1.1-10)
Alleluia. This is the disciple which testifieth of these things: and we know that his testimony is true. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus saith unto Peter, Follow me. Then Peter, turning about, seeth that disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me. Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. (St John 21.19-25)
“This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”
Today, 27 December, we celebrate the Feast of St John the Apostle and Evangelist, also known as John the Theologian (or Divine), and who is frequently referred to as ‘the Beloved Disciple’ in the Gospels. He was one of the first called by Christ and is believed to be the author of the Gospel which bears his name, at least the first of the Epistles of St John, and the Book of Revelation.
John was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and younger brother of James (called James ‘the Greater’), and with his father and brother made his living fishing in the Sea of Galilee. He, along with Peter and Andrew, had originally been followers of John the Baptist; but they immediately followed Christ when He called them (John 1. 35-42). It is believed that John was about 18 at the time. John receives prominent place throughout the Gospels as one of the three apostles (often called the ‘inner circle’) chosen to be present at particularly significant events in the life of Jesus such as the Transfiguration and agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; he was one of the apostles sent to prepare for the Last Supper; the one to whom Jesus from the Cross entrusted His Mother; and the first to arrive at Christ’s tomb following the Resurrection. He was also the apostle who first recognised Christ standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee following the Resurrection, which is the immediate context for today’s Gospel.
After Our Lord’s Ascension, John travelled with Peter to Samaria where they were thrown in prison (Acts 4.3). He also later journeyed to Ephesus and is credited with founding the Church there. Ephesus is also considered to be the location of his death, and what is believed to be his house can still be seen in Ephesus today. Tradition holds that Emperor Domitian had St John beaten, poisoned, and thrown into a pot of boiling oil before the ‘Latin Gate’ of Rome, but that he emerged unscathed. The Feast of St John Before the Latin Gate is celebrated on 6 May. The emperor then banished him to the Isle of Patmos. While on Patmos, it is believed that John revised and edited his Gospel. During this time also, God sent John a great apocalyptic vision which he dutifully recorded as the book of Revelation. In his extreme old age he continued to visit the churches of Asia. St Jerome relates that when age and weakness grew upon him so that he was no longer able to preach to the people, he would be carried to the assembly of the faithful by his disciples with great difficulty; and every time said to his flock only these words: “My dear children, love one another.” St John died in peace at Ephesus in the third year of Trajan (as seems to be gathered from Eusebius’ history of the Saint); that is, the hundredth year of the Christian era. According to St Epiphanus, St John was about ninety-four years old when he died.
The traditional iconography of the Church, drawn from Ezekiel and Revelation, represents St John the Evangelist as an eagle; in a later tradition he is also represented by a chalice with a serpent rising from it because of Christ’s words to John and James in Matthew 20.23, “My cup indeed you shall drink,” and according to the tradition that an attempt was made to kill him by forcing him to drink a cup of poisoned wine, but the deadly drink did not harm him (cf. Mark 16.18).
Eagle as symbol for St John
Poisoned chalice as symbol for St John
In the Church, the symbol of the eagle takes on an additional significance. The Scripture Lessons are often read from lecterns made in the form of an eagle. In a sense, then, all the Scriptures rise on the eagle wings of John. As Augustine notes, “John [in contrast to the other evangelists] soars like an eagle above the clouds of human infirmity, and gazes upon the light of the unchangeable truth with those keenest and steadiest eyes of the heart.” (De consensus evangelistarum)
The Gospel appointed for today’s Feast recounts a curious exchange between Jesus and St Peter about the fate of the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved.’ In the verses immediately preceding this reading, Our Lord has exhorted Peter to follow him and to “feed my lambs,” that is, to shepherd his flock; to love them as He has loved them. He then goes on to predict Peter’s martyrdom: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” (21.18). Our Lord’s charge to Peter is not merely an invitation to general discipleship; it is a specific invitation to martyrdom and death.
Having heard the Lord’s prediction, and seeing John listening nearby, Peter asks, “And what about him?” To which Jesus replies, “What is it to you, if it be my will that he remain until I come? You follow me!” Of course, John did not remain alive until the Lord’s second coming; but his written testimony, given in his Gospel and other biblical writings, has ensured that he has remained “present” in the Christian community even after his death, and will remain until Our Lord returns. For Peter, martyrdom would be characterized by the laying down of his life; but for John, through living out his love for Jesus and bearing witness to Him not by his death, but by his writings.
There is, however, something else that St John’s example of discipleship suggests to us. This “disciple whom Jesus loved” also loved Jesus, and had a personal friendship with Him. He did not simply follow Jesus and listen to Him outwardly. He attempted to live for Him, live with Him, and live like Him. You and I are called to this same depth of relationship with Christ. It is not enough for us to follow Jesus because we feel obligated to do so. We are called to much more. How do we develop such a relationship? Well, we start simply by speaking to Him frequently in prayer. After all, how can one be friends with another without ever speaking to him? As we seek to develop our relationship with God, we can also hear His Word to us as given in the Scriptures. If we do these things regularly, we will soon see that they make a difference in our life.
On Christmas Day we read of the birth of God’s eternal Word, Jesus Christ, whom John calls “the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”(John 1.9) John is often called “the Apostle of Light.” This Lightshines as the Life and the Love of God forth from Jesus and into John’s own heart. John is then illuminated by Christ the Light,and what he sees is nothing other than the Life of God the Father revealed as Love in God the Son.
If the other Gospel writers could be criticized for overemphasizing Jesus’ humanity, John restores the balance by giving us a healthy dose of Christ’s divinity. But he goes on to tell us, in his Epistle, that the Divine Word, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard,” was also that “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled … for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us.” John presents Christ’s lightas love precisely because that light and love have been communicated to him through Christ’s humanity. St Augustine (Commentary on I John) asks: “Who could touch the Word of God with his hands, were it not that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us?”He then tells us that “the Word was made flesh in order to be touched by human hands.”Since the human spirit is too far removed from God by reason of the Fall, sinful man is incapable of perceiving and sensing His Word without its manifestation in human flesh. “The Word was made Flesh so that a reality only perceptible to the heart might also be visible to our eyes, and thus heal our hearts. For God’s Word is seen only by the heart, but the flesh is seen also with the eyes of the body. We have that with which to see the flesh, but do not have that by which to see God’s Word. And so through His flesh Christ reveals to us that He is God’s Word.”The Word was made fleshin order that we might perceive, see, understand, and embrace God’s Word and Will in human life. John tells us that eternal life, which was with the Father, was manifested to us,in time and space, in Jesus Christ.
Thus in his Epistle, he writes, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”The Apostles have seen and heard the Word made flesh as the manifestation of the very Life, Light, and Love of God.Now John declares the truth of this Word that we who cannot see might nevertheless hear and believe. Our fellowship with the Apostles and the entire Church Catholic is based upon our hearing the Good News of the Word made fleshand believing. John saw, heard, embraced, and followed that Word of Life made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. But Jesus would soon ascend back whence He came, requiring that He be seen, heard, touched, handled, and embraced in the disciple’s own heart and soul by faith, and then to be seen, heard, touched, handled, and embraced by others through the believer’s life and witness. The Word that was made Flesh now demands to be made flesh, in a sense just as really, in the hearts and souls of all who would hear and believe, who would be born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1.13) To have Jesus Christ is truly to have Life, and, having this new life, we are to follow Him as God’s eternal Will and Desire made flesh.
But we do not arrive immediately at a state in which we are hold, embrace, touch, and possess God’s Word inwardly and spiritually; we must be prepared for a long journey of transformation from earthen vessels into heavenly temples. John provides us with a detailed history of how God’s Life, Light, and Lovewere manifested in the earthly Incarnation of the Divine Word. He then tells us how we too can begin to allow the Word of God to be made flesh in our hearts and souls. His message is clear: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us as God’s self-revelation, and His Life, Light, and Love in the person of Jesus Christ save us from the death, darkness, and despair of this world. “This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” John has seen God’s Light triumph over darkness, and now he proclaims this truthto us, that we might hear and believe, and have fellowship with God. Yet he warns us that, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the Light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” To walk in the Light of Christis to participate in His victory over darknessand evil. To walk in the Lightis to be cleansed from all sin by the Blood of the spotless Lamb of God. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his Word is not in us.”
Augustine says, “If God be light, and in Him is no darkness at all, and we must have fellowship with Him, then from us also must the darkness be driven away, that there may be Light created in us, for darkness cannot have fellowship with Light.”To become friends of Christ the Light we must embrace His desire to be lovingly received, touched and handled in our souls as the Word of Life. During the Christmas season, we emphasize the fact that God became man. God wanted to make Himself more accessible to us, to make it easier for us to develop a relationship with Him. The Lord has come to us, and He continues to come to us. He has taken the initiative and has shown us just how much He loves us; and we, like John, are called to respond to this divine initiative and to develop a deeper relationship with Him. Following Jesus is not a matter of being special or worthy; it is simply a matter of loving Him enough to respond to His call and to trust in His love for us, no matter who we are and no matter what we have done.
The feast of St John the Evangelist is part of the celebration of Christmas. It reminds us of the important role that John plays in the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ. What is written, he tells us in the Epistle, is “that our joy may be full.” Let us then, with St John, lovingly hold and handle, embrace and cradle Him in our hearts, and in so doing be touched, moved, and transformed by the new birth that His Life, Light, and Love offer to us. May the Light of Christ make His Birthan occasion for our own new birth, this Christmas-tide and always.
Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that we, who through our ancient bondage are held beneath the yoke of sin; may by the new Birth of thine only-begotten Son in the flesh obtain deliverance; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May our Lord Jesus Christ, who by his Incarnation joined heaven to earth and earth to heaven, fill you with his joy and peace; And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.