Today is the Feast of St. John the Divine, Apostle and Evangelist. The body of works in the New Testament traditionally ascribed to John includes a Gospel, the book of Revelation, and three Epistles or letters. Taken together, this corpus of writing is extremely important for a full understanding of the Christian faith and practice.
The Johannine writings often focus on the meaning of events in ways the other New Testament authors do not. I have sometimes rather lightly called them the “right brain” of the Christian faith—using a faddish way of understanding the mind. But the point of saying this is not faddish. These writings invite us into a world of sign, symbol, and experience often taking us beyond the limits of language and into the Reality above and beyond ordinary “reality.”
The Feast of St. John celebrates his falling asleep in the Lord. In Western Christianity St. John is the only Apostle accorded a non-violent death (though he had to suffer the harsh realities of imprisonment on the prison island of Patmos, making him a Confessor of the Faith in the Church’s reckoning). It also celebrates his unique voice as a witness to Christ, a voice many have found especially helpful in moving deeper into the mystery of salvation.
One of the hallmarks of the Johannine tradition is its emphasis on the personal experience of the believer, often using the language of touch, hearing, seeing, &c. The Semitic origin of this way of believing is very evident here: faith is not just a matter of intellectual assent, but one of physical participation. On St. John’s day we celebrate this very personal—in the full sense of that word—way of being “branches” in living communion with the True Vine.
It is this intimacy of participation that makes the Gospel according to John and all the Johannine writings so deeply important to me. Growing up in an overly-intellectual form of Christianity, where the mystical and emotional was largely absent, I profoundly value the wholeness of Anglican catholic Christianity, with its balanced emphasis on the mind, body, and spirit.
In the Episcopal Church, this is perhaps most fully expressed in the Rite I Eucharist, with its emphasis on mutuality and participation (“…that he may dwell in us, and we in him…”). It is just this immediacy of access and personal experience available freely to all in Christ that never tires me, drawing more and more into the ravishing mystery of the Word made flesh.
St. Augustine, whose writings on the Johnannine corpus are amongst that great and complex theologian’s most beautiful works, delighted in pondering the meaning of the Word coming to dwell with us in the flesh. This aspect of the Christian message never ceased to amaze St. Augustine, and fuels much of his teaching about human nature being capable only of love, whether directed properly to communion with God or improperly to communion with something else (which is sin).
During the Twelve Days of Christmas, and especially on St. John’s Day, it is good to reflect on this teaching, asking one’s self just what and where our search for love and communion is taking us. (This is a central part of a parish’s ministry to its members, and a key part of a parish priest’s pastoral care ministry.)
Below are some of his thoughts about this in the context of a treatise on the First Epistle of John—one of the most significant guides to Christian community life every written, and a powerful, poetic expression of what Christian love in action looks like. (The biblical text St. Augustine is working with is in italics; his commentary is in regular print.)
+ + +
We announce what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have touched with our own hands. Who could touch the Word with his hands unless the Word was made flesh and lived among us?
Now this Word, whose flesh was so real that he could be touched by human hands, began to be flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb; but he did not begin to exist at that moment. We know this from what John says: What existed from the beginning. Notice how John’s letter bears witness to his Gospel, which you just heard a moment ago: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.
Someone might interpret the phrase the Word of life to mean a word about Christ, rather than Christ’s body itself which was touched by human hands. But consider what comes next: and life itself was revealed. Christ therefore is himself the Word of life.
And how was this life revealed? It existed from the beginning, but was not revealed to men, only to angels, who looked upon it and feasted upon it as their own spiritual bread. But what does Scripture say? Mankind ate the bread of angels.
Life itself was therefore revealed in the flesh. In this way what was visible to the heart alone could become visible also to the eye, and so heal men’s hearts. For the Word is visible to the heart alone, while flesh is visible to bodily eyes as well. We already possessed the means to see the flesh, but we had no means of seeing the Word. The Word was made flesh so that we could see it, to heal the part of us by which we could see the Word.
John continues: And we are witnesses and we proclaim to you that eternal life which was with the Father and has been revealed among us – one might say more simply “revealed to us.”
We proclaim to you what we have heard and seen. Make sure that you grasp the meaning of these words. The disciples saw our Lord in the flesh, face to face; they heard the words he spoke, and in turn they proclaimed the message to us. So we also have heard, although we have not seen.
Are we then less favored than those who both saw and heard? If that were so, why should John add: so that you too may have fellowship with us? They saw, and we have not seen; yet we have fellowship with them, because we and they share the same faith.
And our fellowship is with God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. And we write this to you to make your joy complete – complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity.
From a Treatise on the First Epistle of St. John by St. Augustine of Hippo, Bishop
(AD 354-430, Commemorated August 28)
+ + +
The Collect for the Feast of St. John the Divine: Apostle and Evangelist
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A Collect for Christmastide
Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.