Thursday, December 27, 2012

Celebrating the Apostle of Light: St. John’s Day

St. John dictating the Apocalypse to his secretary, Prochorus.
The revealed light of God shines in gold, and through the
Scriptures, enters into the darkness of this world.

The 3rd day of Christmas is the celebration of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. By tradition he is ascribed authorship to the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the Apocalypse and three short letters in the New Testament. 

He was likely the youngest member of Jesus’ band of followers, and especially close to Jesus, being known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John was one of the "inner band" of disciples, along with James and Peter, and was present for essentially all of Our Lord's public ministry. He is consistently reported to have lived into advanced age (something alluded to at the close of the Gospel according to John), dying a natural death while serving as the first bishop of Ephesus.

Because they had been commended into each other’s care by Christ on the Cross, by tradition the Blessed Virgin Mary came to live with John for the rest of her life. That same tradition asserts that the other apostles returned to John’s home to be with Mary as she “fell asleep in the Lord.” It was to be the final gathering of the Twelve and Our Lady-- all of whom were together on Pentecost.

Before this, however, St. John suffered persecution for his faith in the Risen Lord, including a sojourn on the labor-prison island of Patmos where he experienced the visions recorded in the book of Revelation. While on Patmos, he would have known privation and beating. Thus, while not being martyred for his faith, he knew the cost of what it meant to take up his own cross and follow Christ.

These are the biographical details. Important as they are, they do not contain the main power of St. John’s witness. That power is lodged in the writings attributed to him, for John was a unique observer of Christ’s ministry. From the Prologue of the Gospel through the end of the Revelation, from the “signs” Christ worked in his ministry through his “enthronement” on the Cross and on to John’s teaching about the nature of Christian Love in the First Letter of John, there is a special voice speaking: the voice of personal experience, personal liberation in mystical encounter.

We celebrate St. John today bathed in the light of the Incarnation. John spoke with great fluidity about this Mystery. He saw how it permeates everything in the Christian’s life. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is not, for John, an exterior event. It is an interior reality realized by God’s initiative and by human contemplation. The beauty and power found in John’s writings is the direct result of prayer—of time immersed in the timeless.

And this is the ‘missing piece’ in most modern theology and spiritual writing. Only those who have been soaked in prayer may speak with authority about the things of God. All else is merely opinion. This reminds me of the art and architecture historian and critic John Ruskin’s remark about what made it possible for Medieval people to build the great cathedrals—and what makes that same effort impossible for us today: theirs was a world of belief; ours is one of opinions. Opinions could never build a great cathedral.

Much of St. John’s work is suffused with light encountering darkness and overcoming it. That is, for those in northern climes, a directly applicable theme drawn from nature this time of year. But the Apostle was speaking from an interior knowledge much more than an earthly one.

For him, a unending light had pierced the darkness of human thought, the darkness of the human heart separated from God. It is this experience, mediated in prayer and compassion, that marks this day with a special significance. For us, today is a celebration of that Light and its potential in each of us, even as it moves inexorably towards its final, triumphant culmination, the assurance of which we find whenever we read the Beloved Disciple’s words.

Collect for the Feast of St. John the 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.

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