Before Christmas, I had begun looking at the stars in the firmament who belong to the constellation of Jesus Christ. I’d like to continue that today, on this Sunday of the Word of God established by Pope Francis, by taking a look at Saint John, the Evangelist of the Word made Flesh, the Beloved Disciple. There is no question that he was especially close to Jesus and can therefore help us to understand Jesus more deeply.
John was one of the first disciples to be called by Jesus. In the synoptic Gospels, he is one of the first four, called by the lakeside. In John’s own Gospel, he and Andrew, at first disciples of the Baptist, go after Jesus when the Baptist proclaims him to be the Lamb of God. They asked Jesus where he stayed and went to stay with him the rest of that day. John is also significant because he was one of the three apostles to be chosen by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, the transfiguration and the agony in the garden. He was also first to reach the empty tomb of Jesus. He is called the beloved disciple some six times in his own Gospel. Whether John gave himself this nickname or was given it by Jesus or the other apostles, we don’t know. But it tells us of Christ’s close affection for John and most surely of John’s for him.
In his vesture as the Beloved Disciple, we know that John stayed with Jesus that first day, leaned on his breast at the Last Supper, followed him into his trial before Caiaphas, accompanied him on the way of the Cross, stood near the Cross, stood near the Mother of Jesus and heard Jesus say to him, “behold your Mother.” This entrusting by Jesus of the Blessed Mother to John speaks volumes about how deeply Jesus loved and trusted John. He had, after all, been the only one of the Twelve openly to support him in his Passion. It also tells us how Jesus wants to love each one of us if we interpret the words, “behold your Mother”, as being said to us. Then there is the mysterious statement by Jesus in answer to a question of Peter. Referring to the Beloved Disciple, Jesus says, “if I want him to stay behind until I come, what is that to you?”
But Jesus also calls John and his brother James, “Boanerges”, or sons of Thunder. If you recall, at one point they wanted to call down fire and brimstone on a village that would not welcome Jesus. On another occasion, they forbade someone who was not among the apostles from exorcizing a devil. Jesus rebuked them on both occasions, but he clearly recognized their forceful character. Possibly they got it from their mother, since she boldly comes forward at one point and asks Jesus to make her two sons sit on his right and on his left when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus gently rebukes the mother and her sons, but uses the opportunity to invite her sons to share in his passion. If you read the writings of St. John and also of St. James, they are very blunt and to the point. Examples in St. John are “if they left us, they never really belonged to us” or “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”
The writings of St. John, especially his Gospel, are much loved and have been the means of sanctity for many Christians across the centuries. They combine simplicity with profundity and in the process draw you into the mystery of Christ. What could be simpler than to say, “I am the Light”, yet what more profound? John’s Gospel is like a divine gold mine, a labyrinth of unending riches revealing the most fundamental truths of God and of man. If Christ is light, man is born spiritually blind. If Christ is the life, man is born spiritually dead. If Christ is the bread of life, man is born spiritually hungry. John helps us to identify the key issues which afflict our human condition and presents Christ as their solution and salvation.
His writings show that he loved Jesus deeply, that he watched and contemplated him closely. I often wonder if John’s teaching also came in great part from Our Lady whom he had taken into his home, his heart, and who will have shared with him perhaps more than any other her own understanding of Jesus. She will have contemplated Jesus and his words more than anyone. In the opening words of his first letter, St. John speaks of Christ as the Word who is life, whom we have heard and watched and touched. No-one more than the Virgin Mother will have heard and watched and touched the child, the boy, the adolescent, the young adult, Jesus. Dare we say that John’s Gospel is in some sense Mary’s Gospel?
As hinted before, though, John can be blunt, black and white in his manner of expression. He has Jesus put us before clear choices, calling a spade a spade, when, for example, he says to the people, “I tell you solemnly, you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat”, or when he says to the Jews who opposed him, “your father is the devil” or when John tells us that Jesus never trusted himself to any man because he knew what each man had in him.
John’s writings about the Word of God made flesh in Jesus have themselves become the Word of God, the Gospel of the Lord. They show clear signs that the one who wrote them was a close eye-witness to much of what they recount. John’s strong human affection for Jesus could not but lead to a deeper knowledge of Jesus the man and therefore of Jesus as the Word and Son of God. As we immerse ourselves in John’s work, we are ourselves led into his affection and love for Jesus the man and therefore for Christ the Son of the Father. John’s Gospel in particular draws anyone who takes it up with open heart and faith into a deep contemplation of Jesus, the man who is God and the God who is man. You cannot but come away from John’s Gospel with the feeling that the man who wrote it both knew and loved Jesus and wanted you to do the same. In fact, he defines the aim of his Gospel as the faith of those who read it. In his first Letter he further defines it as the desire that we enter into communion with his joy at believing in Jesus, a joy made complete by the faith of those who accept his testimony. John’s Gospel makes you feel you have met Jesus and been touched by him.
Another masterly thing about John’s Gospel is that he has written it in such a way as to mediate Christ to the reader without getting in the way. He keeps himself out of the personal encounter between the reader and Jesus. He introduces us to Him, but bows out as he does so.
John is also a great dramatist. He carefully puts together the scenes of the various encounters Jesus has with individuals and groups to heighten the dramatic tension. He crafts the scene so as to give greatest importance to what deserves it. You can see this in the dialogue of Jesus with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the blind man and the apostle Peter after the resurrection, as also in the scene of the raising of Lazarus from the dead and, above all, in the Passion.
We know that the Holy Spirit has inspired all Scripture, but John’s Gospel is recognized by many as breathing the radiance and power of the Spirit more than any other book. It would definitely be my desert island book.
But what does John’s Gospel say about the Word of God? The key text for this is the Prologue or opening of his Gospel, which announces in summary form practically all of the major themes of the rest of the Gospel. The first thing to note about the prologue is that St. John deliberately echoes the opening of the bible itself, the book of Genesis. Genesis begins, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”, and goes on to give us the array of creation in six days, ending with the creation of man and, finally, the day of rest, the seventh day or sabbath. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Many writers then see the whole of John’s Gospel as echoing the six days of creation, but in terms of the new creation which Jesus came to bring about. The culmination of John’s Gospel is that the Word who is God and became flesh brought about the new creation by his death and resurrection. The sabbath or seventh day, Jesus rested in the tomb, but on the eighth day, he rose and inaugurated the new creation, the new beginning.
The prologue tells us that the Word is God. In the rest of the Gospel, you can see how St. John develops that truth. Jesus repeatedly uses of himself the term, “I Am” which, you will recall, is the name the Lord gives himself when revealing himself to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus says, for example, “before Abraham ever was, I am” (ch. 8). He says to the Samaritan woman when she talks about the Messiah, “I who am speaking to you, I am he” (ch. 4). To the guards who come to arrest him, Jesus says, “I am he” and they fall to the ground (ch. 18). He also says, “I am the living bread”, “I am the light of the world”, “I am the good shepherd”, “I am the resurrection and the life”, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” In all these words, John is showing us how the Word made flesh who is God and who is with God, is making himself known to anyone who will listen.
Jesus also performs signs to arouse the faith of those around him in his divinity. The changing of water into wine at Cana, the healing of the paralysed man, the multiplication of the loaves and fish, the healing of the man born blind and, above all, the raising of Lazarus from the tomb on the fourth day, when the body would have begun to decay.
In the prologue, St. John also says that in the Word was life and through him “all things came to be; not one thing had its being but through him.” It is through the resurrection of Lazarus especially that Jesus demonstrates that he is the Word who is Life. Yet, he also says in disputing with the Jews that whoever listens to his words and believes has eternal life. The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live, they will leave their graves at the sound of his voice.
In the prologue, John says that in the Word was life “and that life was the light of men.” The Word as the Light of the world is developed especially in chapter 9 when Jesus cures the man born blind and challenges his opponents to choose the light of believing in him rather than linger in the darkness of their pride.
Again, in the prologue, St. John says that, whilst the law came through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ. The theme of the Word as Truth is a constant throughout the Gospel of John but comes to its climax when Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate. Christ states clearly that his kingdom is a kingdom of truth and that all who are on the side of truth listen to his voice. Pilate voices the tragic cynicism of the hardness of the human heart when he asks the question, “Truth, what is that?” – when Truth in Person was standing in front of him.
As Word of God, Jesus is the Revealer of the Father. If you read John’s Gospel from beginning to end in one sitting, you cannot but be struck by the constant preoccupation of Jesus with the Father, with doing the Father’s will, with speaking the Father’s words, with accomplishing the Father’s works, with loving the Father and bringing the world to know that he loved the Father, with being one with the Father, with returning to the Father after making it possible for us also to call God our Father, too.
There is also the astounding truth which John articulates in the prologue: the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. The humanity of Jesus is boldly proclaimed alongside the high titles of his divinity. There is no opposition, no confusion, no shame, no arrogance in this proclamation, for it is the simple, God’s honest truth. And does not the humanity of Jesus shine forth with beauty and consolation in the whole of John’s Gospel? His easy companionship with the disciples, his affection for John, his Mother, the Magdalene, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. His pity for the starving and bewildered crowds, his love and tenderness for the sinner, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, the blind man, the lame man and even poor Malchus whose ear was cut off. Truly human and truly divine. Perhaps: truly human because truly divine. A fake humanity could not have saved us, even less a fake divinity. The Word became flesh so that we in our flesh can become divine. Really and truly.
John also reports Jesus telling us that the Word seeks to abide in us, make its home in us. That Word is God and is principally about God, revealing the inner trinitarian life, love and work of God. Jesus speaks the words of God and reveals himself as God by his signs and deeds, above all by his death and Resurrection. His words were not wordy words, but effective, practical, executive words. There was no distance or opposition between his speech and his action.
And what is our response to all this? What is it that the Word wants of us? Faith in him, genuine, deep, radical, total, unstinting, unhesitating, heart-embracing and even heart-breaking faith. This is the goal of His self-revelation, that we would reveal, unveil, strip our innermost selves for him. As he emptied himself of everything to save us out of pure Agape love, he wants us to do likewise: to believe, to love and to hope in him. This cannot be done in fits and starts any more than we can be alive in fits and starts.
The Word who is Life and Creator created and gave life to you, so by your existence you are a revelation of God and so is everyone around you at home and in the wide, wide world. You are created by Christ, through Christ and for Christ. Christ is written all over you. Because of him, even when you die, you continue to exist until he raises us all in the body and in the Spirit of eternal life. The Word as Light has given you the light of intelligence, yes to know this beautiful world, but above all to come to know God himself, face to face. The Word as Truth seeks to abide in your innermost life and become the measure of your reality and of all reality.
The Church has always revered the Bible as she reveres the Body of the Lord. Christ comes to us under the species of the Word, you might say, as well as under the species of bread and wine, though clearly in a different kind of way. The Eucharist is a sacrament which communicates the grace it signifies; the Scriptures are not a sacrament, but to the believing heart they do communicate the grace of the Spirit. Whereas the Eucharist gives us grace through a material sign, the hearing and meditation of the Scriptures communicates a grace to us spiritually which we must then translate into the material of our lives.
When you take St. John’s Gospel or any other part of Scripture in your hands, you are opening yourself to the living God, to the community and communion of the Church across the centuries which has read and lived from these same words. You are meeting Abraham, Moses, Elijah and David. You are in the garden of Eden. You are walking through the Red Sea. You are seeing Lazarus walk out of his grave. You are standing near the Cross of Jesus and weeping for him as for an only son. You are in the empty tomb. The Scriptures are not dead words, but living, for all that is in the Scriptures is alive to God and alive in God. The passing of time does not make God’s word pass. It remains as alive and as fresh, as life-giving and as healing, as challenging and as disturbing as it ever was.
So, I strongly encourage everyone to be bold, to be daring, to take up in your hands this gift of the Holy Scriptures which comes from the living God to you, for you, to enlighten and enrich your life with the wisdom and grace of God. Don’t put obstacles in the way. If you face a difficulty, seek help, first from the Lord and then from others. There is plenty of it available online and I will do what I can to direct you. We are a people of Word and Sacrament. That is the very constitution of the Mass. We must not breathe with only one lung, but with both. If the voice of Jesus can raise the dead to life, it can raise your heart and soul to taste and rejoice in the grace and truth which he gives you in abundance in his Holy Word. St. Augustine was a terrible sinner before he heard the voice of a child say to him, “Take and read.” So, he took up the bible and read. Look where it got him!