Today is the feast day of Saint John. Ora pro nobis.
“At that time: Jesus said to Peter Follow me. Turning round, Peter saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved (Saint John the Apostle).”–John 21, 19-24
The Church recognizes two lives which Divinity himself has revealed and recommended. One is the life of faith, the other the life of vision; one the life of pilgrimage, the other life in the mansions of eternity; one the life of labor, the other the life of rest; one the life of the journey, the other the life of home; one the life of action, the other the life of contemplation. The one avoids evil and does good, the other knows no evil to avoid, but only a great good to enjoy. The one fights with the enemy, the other, having no enemy, reigns.
The one aids the needy, the other is where no needy are; the one forgives the trespasses of others that its own might be forgiven, the other has neither trespasses to forgive nor does anything which calls for forgiveness. The one is scourged with evils, lest it be made presumptuous by prosperity; the other possesses such a fullness of grace that it is without evil. Free from any temptation to pride, it adheres to the Supreme Good.
Wherefore one life is good, but as yet full of sorrows; the other is better, yea even blessed. The first is typified by the Apostle Peter, the other by John. The one life endures all labors up to the end of its alotted time, and there finds an end; the other, having fulfilled all things, stretches beyond the end of time, and in eternity finds no end. So, to Peter is said: “Follow me.” Of the other, however; “If I wish him to remain until I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me.” What is the meaning of this? How much can I know of it? How much can I understand? What is it?–unless this: “You are to follow me, imitating me in suffering temporal evils. Let him remain until I come, bringing eternal rewards.” Homily of St. Augustine (4)
From THE LITURGICAL YEAR, Dom Guéranger OSB
NEAREST to Jesus’ Crib, after Stephen, stands John, the Apostle and Evangelist. It was only right that the first place should be assigned to him, who so loved his God that he shed his blood in his service; for, as this God Himself declares, greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends, [St. John xv 13] and Martyrdom has ever been counted by the Church as the greatest act of love, and as having, consequently, the power of remitting sins, like a second Baptism. But next to the sacrifice of Blood, the noblest, the bravest sacrifice, and that which most wins the heart of Him Who is the Spouse of souls, is the sacrifice of Virginity. Now just as St. Stephen is looked upon as the type of Martyrs, St. John is honoured as the Prince of Virgins. Martyrdom won for Stephen the Crown and palm; Virginity merited for John most singular prerogatives, which, while they show how dear to God is holy Chastity, put this Disciple among those who by their dignity and influence are above the rest of men.
St. John was of the family of David, as was our Blessed Lady. He was consequently a relation of Jesus. This same honour belonged to St. James the Greater, his brother; as also to St. James the Less and St. Jude, both sons of Alpheub. When our Saint was in the prime of his youth, he left not only his boat and nets, not only his Father Zebedee, but even his betrothed, when everything was prepared for the marriage. He followed Jesus, and never once looked back. Hence the special love which our Lord bore him. Others were Disciples or Apostles, John was the Friend of Jesus. The cause of this our Lord’s partiality was, as the Church tells us in the Liturgy, that John had offered his Virginity to the Man-God. Let us, on this his Feast, enumerate the graces and privileges that came to St. John from his being the Disciple whom Jesus loved.
This very expression of the Gospel, which the Evangelist repeats several times—–The Disciple whom Jesus loved [St. John xiii 23; xix 26; xxi 7; xxi 20]—–says more than any commentary could do. St. Peter, it is true, was chosen by our Divine Lord to be the Head of the Apostolic College, and the Rock whereon the Church was to be built: he, then, was honored most; but St. John was loved most. Peter was bid to love more than the rest loved, and he was able to say, in answer to Jesus’ thrice repeated question, that he did love Him in this highest way: and yet, notwithstanding, John was more loved by Jesus than was Peter himself, because his Virginity deserved this special mark of honour.
Chastity of soul and body brings him who possesses it into a sacred nearness and intimacy with God. Hence it was that at the Last Supper—–that Supper which was to be renewed on our Altars to the end of the world, in order to cure our spiritual infirmities and give life to our souls—–John was placed near to Jesus, nay, was permitted, as the tenderly loved Disciple, to lean his head upon the Breast of the Man-God. Then it was that he was filled, from their very Fountain, with Light and Love: it was both a recompense and a favour, and became the source of two signal graces, which make St. John an object of special reverence to the whole Church.
Divine wisdom wishing to make known to the world the Mystery of the Word, and commit to Scripture those profound secrets which, so far, no pen of mortal had been permitted to write, the task was put upon John. Peter had been crucified, Paul had been beheaded, and the rest of the Apostles had laid down their lives in testimony of the Truths they had been sent to preach to the world; John was the only one left in the Church. Heresy had already begun its blasphemies against the Apostolic Teachings; it refused to admit the Incarnate Word as the Son of God, Consubstantial to the Father. John was asked by the Churches to speak, and he did so in language heavenly above measure. His Divine Master had reserved to this His Virgin-Disciple the honour of writing those sublime Mysteries which the other Apostles had been commissioned only to teach—–THE WORD WAS GOD, and this WORD WAS MADE FLESH for the salvation of mankind. Thus did our Evangelist soar, like the Eagle, up to the Divine Sun, and gaze upon Him with undazzled eye, because his heart and senses were pure, and therefore fitted for such vision of the uncreated Light. If Moses, after having conversed with God in the cloud, came from the Divine interview with rays of miraculous light encircling his head: how radiant must have been the face of St. John, which had rested on the very Heart of Jesus, in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge [Col. ii 3] how sublime his writings! how Divine his teaching! Hence the symbol of the Eagle, shown to the Prophet Ezechiel, [Ezech. i 10; x 14] and to St. John himself in his Revelations, [Apoc. iv 7] has been assigned to him by the Church: and to this title of The Eagle has been added, by universal tradition, the other beautiful name of Theologian.
This was the first recompense given by Jesus to His Beloved John—–a profound penetration into Divine Mysteries. The second was the imparting to him of a most ardent charity, which was equally a grace consequent upon his angelic purity, for purity unburdens the soul from grovelling egotistic affections, and raises it to a chaste and generous love. John had treasured up in his heart the Discourses of his Master: he made them known to the Church, and especially that Divine one of the Last Supper, wherein Jesus had poured forth His whole Soul to His Own, whom He had always tenderly loved, but most so at the end. [1 St. John xiii 1] He wrote his Epistles, and Charity is his subject: God is Charity—–he that loveth not, knoweth not God—–perfect Charity casteth out fear—–and so on throughout, always on Love. During the rest of his life, even when so enfeebled by old age as not to be able to walk, he was for ever insisting upon all men loving each other, after the example of God, Who had loved them and so loved them! Thus, he that had announced more clearly than the rest of the Apostles the Divinity of the Incarnate Word, was par excellence the Apostle of that Divine Charity which Jesus came to enkindle upon the earth.
But our Lord had a further gift to bestow, and it was sweetly appropriate to the Virgin-Disciple. When dying on his Cross, Jesus left Mary upon this earth. Joseph had been dead now some years. Who then shall watch over His Mother? Who is there worthy of the charge? Will Jesus send His Angels to protect and console her? For, surely, what man could ever merit to be to her as a second Joseph? Looking down, He sees the Virgin-Disciple standing at the foot of the Cross: we know the rest, John is to be Mary’s Son: Mary is to be John’s Mother. Oh! wonderful Chastity, that wins from Jesus such an inheritance as this! Peter, says St. Peter Damian, shall have left to him the Church, the Mother of men; but John shall receive Mary, the Mother of God, whom he will love as his own dearest Treasure, and to whom he will stand in Jesus’ stead; whilst Mary will tenderly love John, her Jesus’ Friend, as her Son.
Can we be surprised after this, that St. John is looked upon by the Church as one of her greatest glories? He is a Relative of Jesus in the flesh; he is an Apostle, a Virgin, the Friend of the Divine Spouse, the Eagle, the Theologian, the Son of Mary; he is an Evangelist, by the history he has given of the Life of his Divine Master and Friend; he is a Sacred Writer, by the three Epistles he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; he is a Prophet, by his mysterious Apocalypse, wherein are treasured the secrets of time and eternity. But is he a Martyr? Yes, for if he did not complete his sacrifice, he drank the Chalice of Jesus, [St. Matt. xx 22] when, after being cruelly scourged, he was thrown into a caldron of boiling oil before the Latin Gate at Rome. He was therefore a Martyr in desire and intention, though not in fact. If our Lord, wishing to prolong a life so dear to the Church, as well as to show how he loves and honours Virginity, miraculously stayed the effects of the frightful punishment, St. John had, on his part, unreservedly accepted Martyrdom.
Such is the companion of Stephen at the Crib, wherein lies our Infant Jesus. If the Protomartyr dazzles us with the robes he wears of the bright scarlet of his own blood; is not the virginal whiteness of John’s vestment fairer than the untrod snow? The spotless beauty of the Lilies of Mary’s adopted Son, and the bright vermilion of Stephen’s Roses——what is there more lovely than their union? Glory, then, be to our New-Born King, Whose court is tapestried with such heaven-made colours as these! Yes, Bethlehem’s Stable is a very Heaven on earth, and we have seen its transformation. First we saw Mary and Joseph alone there: they were adoring Jesus in His Crib; then, immediately, there descended a heavenly host of Angels singing the wonderful Hymn; the Shepherds soon followed, the humble, simple-hearted Shepherds; after these entered Stephen the Crowned, and John the Beloved Disciple; and even before there enters the pageant of the devout Magi, we shall have others coming in, and there will be each day grander glory in the Cave, and gladder joy in our hearts. Oh! this birth of our Jesus! Humble as it seems, yet how Divine! What King or Emperor ever received in his gilded cradle, honours like these shown to the Babe of Bethlehem? Let us unite our homage with that given Him by these the favoured inmates of His court. Yesterday the sight of the Palm in Stephen’s hand animated us, and we offered to our Jesus the promise of a stronger Faith: today the Wreath that decks the brow of the Beloved Disciple breathes upon the Church the heavenly fragrance of Virginity: an intenser love of Purity must be our resolution, and our tribute to the Lamb.
Beloved Disciple of the Babe of Bethlehem! how great is thy happiness! how wonderful is the reward given to thy love and thy purity! In thee was fulfilled that word of thy Master: Blessed are the clean of heart; for they shall see God. Not only didst thou see this God-Man: thou wast His Friend, and on His Bosom didst rest thy head. John the Baptist trembles at having to bend the head of Jesus under the water of Jordan; Magdalen, though assured by his own lips that her pardon was perfect as her love, yet dares not raise her head, but keeps clinging to his feet; Thomas scarce presumes to obey Him when He bids him put his finger into His wounded Side; and thou, in the presence of all the Apostles, sittest close to Him, leaning thy head upon His Breast! Nor is it only Jesus in his Humanity that thou seest and possessest; but, because thy heart is pure, thou soarest like an eagle up to the Sun of Justice, and fixest thine eye upon Him in the light inaccessible wherein He dwelleth eternally with the Father and the Holy Ghost.
Thus was rewarded the fidelity wherewith thou didst keep intact for Jesus the precious treasure of thy Purity. And now, O worthy favourite of the great King! forget not us poor sinners. We believe and confess the Divinity of the Incarnate Word Whom thou hast evangelized unto us; but we desire to draw nigh to Him during this holy season, now that He shows himself so desirous of our company, so humble, so full of love, so dear a Child, and so poor! Alas! our sins keep us back; our heart is not pure like thine; we have need of a Patron to introduce us to our Master’s crib. [Isa. i 3] Thou, O Beloved Disciple of Emmanuel! Thou must procure us this happiness. Thou hast shown us the Divinity of the Word in the bosom of the Eternal Father; lead us now to this same Word made flesh. Under thy patronage Jesus will permit us to enter into the Stable, to stand near His Crib, to see with our eyes and touch with our hands [1 St. John i 1] this sweet Fruit of eternal Life. May it be granted us to contemplate the sweet Face of Him that is our Saviour and thy Friend; to feel the throbs of that Heart which
loves both thee and us, which thou didst see wounded by the Spear, on Calvary. It is good for us to fix ourselves here near the Crib of our Jesus, and share in the graces He there lavishes, and learn, as thou didst, the grand lesson of this Child’s simplicity: thy prayers must procure all this for us.
Then too, as Son and Guardian of Mary, thou hast to present us to thine own and our Mother. Ask her to give us somewhat of the tender love wherewith she watches over the Crib of her Divine Son; to see in us the Brothers of that Child she bore; and to admit us to a share of the maternal affection she had for thee, the favoured confidant of the secrets of her Jesus.
We also pray to thee, O holy Apostle! for the Church of God. She was planted and watered by thy labours, embalmed with the celestial fragrance of thy virtues, and illumined by thy sublime teachings; pray now that these graces may bring forth their fruit, and that to the end of her pilgrimage faith may be firm, the love of Jesus fervent, and Christian morals pure and holy. Thou tellest us in thy Gospel of a saying of thy Divine Master: I will not now call you my Servants, but my Friends: [St. John xv 15] pray, dear Saint, that there may come to this, from our hearts and lips, a response of love and courage, telling our Emmanuel that, like thyself, we will follow Him whithersoever He leads us.
Let us, on this second day after our Divine Infant’s Birth, meditate upon the Sleep He deigns to take. Let us consider how this God of all goodness, Who has come down from Heaven to invite His creature man to come to Him and seek rest for his soul, seeks rest Himself in our earthly home, and sanctifies by His Own Divine sleep that rest which to us is a necessity. We have just been dwelling with delighted devotion on the thought of His offering His Breast as a resting-place for the Beloved Disciple, and for all souls that imitate John in his love and devotedness: now let us look at this our God, sweetly sleeping in His humble Crib, or on His Mother’s lap. (1)
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. John, Apostle and Evangelist of Jesus Christ, a brother of St. James, and son of Zebedee and Salome, was born at Bethsaida, a town in Galilee. Christ, our Lord, called him and his brother James to follow Him, at the time when they were mending their nets in a boat on the shore of the Sea of Genesareth. John, without delay, left all he possessed, even his own father, and, with his brother, followed the Lord. Although the youngest of the Apostles, he was beloved by the Saviour above all the others; whence he is several times mentioned in the Gospel, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The cause of this special love of Jesus for him, was, according to the Holy Fathers, his virginal purity, which he kept undefiled, and the tender love he bore to the Lord. “He was more beloved than all the other Apostles,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, “on account of his purity.” “For the same reason,” says St. Anselm, “God revealed more mysteries to him than to the other Apostles. Justly,” says he, “did Christ the Lord reveal the greatest mysteries to him, because he surpassed all in virginal purity.”
It is evident from the Gospel that St. John was one of the most intimate of the friends of the Lord, and was, in consequence, sometimes admitted into Christ’s presence, when, except Peter and James, no other Apostle was allowed to be near. Thus, he was with Christ when He healed the mother-in-law of Peter; when He raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead; and when He was transfigured on Mount Thabor. He also accompanied Christ when He suffered His agony in the Garden of Olives. The other two above-named Apostles shared these favors with John; but none was permitted to lean upon the Saviour’s bosom, at the last supper, save John; none was recommended as son to the divine Mother, but John. Only he, of all the Apostles, followed Christ to Mount Calvary, and remained there with Him until His death. To recompense this love, Christ gave him to His Mother as her son, when He said: “Behold thy Mother!” Christ, who had lived in virginal chastity, would trust His Virgin Mother to no one else but John, who himself lived in virginal purity. As St. Jerome says: “Christ, a virgin, recommended Mary, a virgin, to John, a virgin.” No greater grace could John have asked of Christ; no more evident proof could he have received of His love. The most precious thing which the Lord possessed on earth, His holy Mother, He commended to His beloved disciple. He took him as brother, by giving Him as son to His mother. Who cannot see from all this that Christ loved and honored St. John above all others?
How deeply this beloved disciple must have suffered by seeing his Saviour die so ignominious a death, is easily to be conceived; and St. Chrysostom hesitates not to call him, therefore, a manifold martyr. After Christ had died on the Cross, had been taken from it, and interred with all possible honors, St. John returned home with the divine Mother, who was now also his mother, and waited for the glorious resurrection of the Lord. When this had taken place, he participated in the many apparitions of the Lord, by which the disciples were comforted, and doubtless received again particular marks of love from the Saviour. He afterwards assisted, with the divine Mother and the Apostles, and other disciples of Christ, at the wonderful Ascension of the Lord. With these, also, he received, after a ten days’ preparation, the Holy Ghost, on the great festival of Pentecost. Soon after this, he and Peter had, before all others, the grace to suffer for Christ’s sake. For when these two Apostles had, in the name of Christ, miraculously healed a poor cripple who was lying at the door of the temple of Jerusalem, and improved this opportunity to show to the assembled people that Jesus of Nazareth was the true Messiah, they were seized, at the instigation of the chief priests, and were cast into prison. On the following day, the priests came together, and John and Peter were called before them, and asked in whose name, and by what power they had healed the cripple. Peter and John answered fearlessly, that it had been done in the name of Jesus Christ. The high priest dared not do anything further to them, but, setting them free, prohibited them from preaching, in future, the name of Christ. The two holy Apostles, however, nothing daunted, said: “If it be just in the sight of God to hear you rather than God, judge ye: for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
St. John remained for some time in Jerusalem after this, and, with the other Apostles, was zealous in his endeavors to convert the Jews. When the Apostles separated, to preach the gospel over all the world, Asia Minor was assigned to St. John. Going thither, he began with great zeal his apostolic functions, and, by the gift of miracles, he converted many thousands to the faith of Christ. The many bishoprics which he instituted in the principal cities sufficiently prove this. In the course of time, he went also to other countries, preaching everywhere, with equal success, the word of Christ. The Emperor Domitian, who, after the death of the Emperor Nero, again began to persecute the Christians, ordered his officers to apprehend John, and bring him to Rome. Hardly had the holy Apostle arrived there, when he was commanded by the Emperor to sacrifice to the gods. As the Saint refused this, and fearlessly confessed Christ, the Emperor had him most cruelly scourged, and afterwards cast into a large caldron, filled with boiling oil. The Saint signed himself and the caldron with the holy cross, and remained unharmed when he was cast into it. This gave him an opportunity to announce, with great energy, to the assembled people, the gospel of Jesus Christ. The tyrant, who could not suffer this, had him taken out of the caldron, and sentenced him to banishment on the island of Patmos, to work in the mines, and perform other hard labor, in company with other Christians. St. John had, at that time, reached his ninetieth year, but was willing to undergo the unjust sentence.
After his arrival on the island, he had many and wonderful visions, which, by command of God, he put down in writing. The book which contains them is a part of Holy Writ, called the Apocalypse, or Revelation of St. John, a book which, according to St. Jerome, contains almost as many mysteries as words. After the death of Domitian, St. John was liberated, and returning to Ephesus, remained there until his death. He outlived all the other Apostles, as he reached the age of 100 years. His great labors, wearisome travels, and the many hardships he endured, at last enfeebled him to such an extent, that he could not go to the church without being carried. Frequently he repeated, in his exhortations, the words: “My little children, love one another.” Some, annoyed at this, asked him why he so often repeated these words. He answered: “Because it is the commandment of the Lord; and if that is done, it suffices.” By this he meant, that if we love each other rightly, we also love God; and when we love God and our neighbor, no more is needed to gain salvation; as love to God and to our neighbor contains the keeping of all other commandments.
The holy Apostle, who had suffered and labored so much for his beloved Master, was, at length, in the year 104, called by Him into heaven to receive his eternal reward. Besides the Apocalypse, to which we referred above, St. John also wrote three Epistles and his Gospel, on account of which he is called Evangelist. In his Gospel he gives many more facts than the other Evangelists, to prove the divinity of Jesus Christ; as, at that period, several heretics, as Cerinthus, Ebion, and the Nicolaites fought against this truth. In his Epistles, he exhorts particularly to love God and our neighbor, and to avoid heretics. In the first, among other things, he explains that love to God consists in keeping the commandments of God, which are not difficult to keep. “For this is the charity of God,” writes he, “that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not heavy.” Of the love of our neighbor he says, that it must manifest itself in works, that is, we must assist our brethren in their need, and, if necessary, give even our lives for them, after the example of Christ. The holy Apostle exemplified his words by his actions.
Several holyfathers relate the following of him. The Saint had given a youth in charge of a bishop, with the commendation to instruct him carefully in virtue and sacred sciences. After some years, when the Saint returned to this bishop, and asked for the young man, he heard with deep sorrow that he had secretly left, and had joined the highwaymen, and had even become their chief. The holy Apostle set out at once, and went, not without danger to his life, into the woods, where the unhappy young man was said, to be. Finding him, he spoke most kindly to him, and succeeded in bringing him back. It is touching to read how the holy, man promised to atone for the youth’s sins, if he would repent, and lead a better life. The youth followed the Saint’s admonition, and did penance with such fervor and zeal that the Saint hesitated not to give him charge of the church at Ephesus. (4)
St. John is commemorated on 27 December, which he originally shared with St. James the Greater. At Rome the feast was reserved to St. John alone at an early date, though both names are found in the Carthage Calendar, the Hieronymian Martyrology, and the Gallican liturgical books. The “departure” or “assumption” of the Apostle is noted in the Menology of Constantinople and the Calendar of Naples (26 September), which seems to have been regarded as the date of his death. The feast of St. John before the Latin Gate, supposed to commemorate the dedication of the church near the Porta Latina, is first mentioned in the Sacramentary of Adrian I (772-95). (8)
Early Christian art usually represents St. John with an eagle, symbolizing the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel. The chalice as symbolic of St. John, which, according to some authorities, was not adopted until the thirteenth century, is sometimes interpreted with reference to the Last Supper, again as connected with the legend according to which St. John was handed a cup of poisoned wine, from which, at his blessing, the poison rose in the shape of a serpent. Perhaps the most natural explanation is to be found in the words of Christ to John and James “My chalice indeed you shall drink” (Matthew 20:23). (8)
Why is wine blessed on this day and given to the faithful to drink?
That all who drink of this blessed wine, may be preserved from all diseases of body and soul, as God preserved St. John, who to confirm the truth of the Christian religion, drank of a rich, but poisoned wine, without being injured by it; and that we may by St. John’s intercession be strengthened and confirmed in the faith and be rightly inflamed with the love of God and our neighbor, of which this wine is a figure, and with which St. John was overflowing. Consequently when presenting the wine, the priest says: Drink the love of St. John, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. (5)
A leader in Jerusalem and in Samaria
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, John seems to have stayed in Jerusalem as one of the leaders with Peter of the followers of Jesus (Acts 1-4) and testified to the resurrection before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:5). He and Peter went to Samaria to confirm new converts (Acts 8:14, 25). And when Paul is converted, he submits his orthodoxy to those reputed to be “pillars” of the young church – John, Peter, and James (Gal 2:1-10).
Place of his death – Ephesus or Patmos?
Later tradition associates John with the city of Ephesus where his tomb is venerated along with the ruins of a basilica in his honour. The house where Mary lived is located just outside the town. Another tradition relates that John was banished to the Greek island of Patmos during the persecution of Domitian (81-96) where, it is said, he wrote the Book of Revelation. (13)
Research by REGINA Staff