The youthful disciple who lived a long life

People of the Book – St. John the Evangelist

Without question the densest and most theologically developed of the four Gospels is that of John. Composed at least six decades after Jesus’ death and Resurrection, the disciples, by the time of its writing, had a number of years to reflect upon what they had witnessed during his ministry, as well as to have been challenged by the martyrdom of many of his followers, the destruction of the Temple, and the dashed hopes that his promise to return to ransom them from the tragic affairs of this world and take them to the place he had prepared for them would be imminent. Because of such perspectival distance, readers of the Gospel attributed to John see a narrative markedly more philosophical and meditative than the earlier synoptic accounts. This rather lofty contemplative dimension to the texts, soaring into the ethereal realms of eternal truths, has inspired artists to often portray John with a representative eagle in Christian iconography.

Nowhere in the Gospel proper does the work explicitly claim to be the work of John. Rather, the central protagonist (other than Christ, of course) is throughout referred to simply as “the beloved disciple.” Tradition has held that the Gospel was written by John, the younger brother of the apostle James whom Jesus had collectively called “the sons of thunder,” and that it is a sibling text to three of the New Testament epistles (1, 2, and 3 John) and the Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse, supposedly composed while John was in exile on the island of Patmos).

The historicity of these books sharing one common author, especially one physically present at the foot of the cross, is perhaps not entirely reliable. However, the Johnannine communities from which they arose were without doubt guided by divine inspiration to gather a growing compilation of theological resources and to fearlessly proclaim the kerygmatic message that “Jesus is Lord,” and that he alone as pre-existent Word from the beginning of time “was with God and was God,” and is “the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.”

If we are to accept the common teaching that John is this “beloved disciple,” we are able to ascertain that he had a number of distinct privileges in his relationship with the Lord. While John’s Gospel replaces the Eucharistic dimension to the Last Supper with the Bread of Life discourses, it does tell of the Lord washing the disciples’ feet in preparation for his death in the ultimate teachable moment exhorting his followers to treat one another with charity and compassion. It is in this context that John intimately rests his head on the breast of Jesus while reclining at table, closer than any other account to that beating and sacred heart which most perfectly exhibited the very love that moves the stars, as Dante would put it.

It is also to John that Jesus entrusts both the maternal devotion to and spiritual guardianship of his mother from the agony of his death throes. “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” Just as he, with Peter and James, came to embody and represent all eventual believers when he saw Christ’s face and clothes transfigured into glorious radiance “such as no fuller on earth could brighten them,” John here symbolically accepts by proxy a unique relationship with Mary that will resound with Christians through the centuries.

In the post-Resurrection accounts, John’s youthful energy is often palpable, especially when paired with Peter’s exuberance. When the apostle to the apostles Mary Magdalene (whose feast day was last week) tells the others what has happened on that monumental Sunday morning, John races to the tomb ahead of everyone, but then stands confusedly at the gaping and dark entrance passageway weighing what to do next. Dauntless and impetuous Peter breathlessly dashes in past him to examine the empty burial clothes up close with his own eyes. It is also John who first recognizes the risen Jesus on the beach before the charcoal breakfast, shouting excitedly from the boat, “It is the Lord!” which causes Peter to rush headlong into the waves and swim to shore.

In addition to his traditional feast day on Dec. 27, the Tridentine calendar memorialized a separate celebration of San Giovanni a Porta Latina (St John before the Latin Gate). A Roman church today stands near this ancient monument where John supposedly rose unharmed from a vat of boiling oil during the Domitian persecutions; accordingly, he is believed to have been the only apostle to die of natural causes in old age.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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