Saint John the Evangelist

27 December, 2020

John was a Galilean, son of Zebedee and Salome, and a fisherman.  When Jesus called him and his brother James, they abandoned their nets and their father and followed Him.  It’s truly amazing:  because of their determination and their heart in seeking, they left their business and even put Jesus ahead of their family.  We’re not really to hate our mother, father, sister and brother, but we cannot love anyone, the world or self above Jesus.  That’s our calling as Christ’s followers: we’re not to be half-hearted or have two or more loves, but love Christ only; everything else is secondary.

Icon of St. John, the Apostle
Icon of St. John, the Apostle

After Pentecost, John settled in Ephesus.  In the time of the Emperor Domitian he was exiled to the Greek island of Patmos, and wrote the Revelation of Jesus Christ, a letter addressed to seven churches in seven major cities in Asia Minor.[1]  The Church was living at the heart of satan’s throne and the seat of the Emperor’s throne.  Christians were charged as “atheists” and child-murderers and as addicted to malevolent magic.  They were persecuted, excluded from Roman pagan society, and fed to lions or burned, because they refused to participate in observing the imperial cult.  The Emperor was considered a god that demanded worship from all his subjects; but since Christians believed Jesus is God, they couldn’t worship any other god.  Saint John reminds the churches who their real and true King is, and the necessity to persevere in the midst of conflict.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, John was the only person who heard God’s heartbeat (John 13:23-25).[2]  He was the object of a very special honour and love on Christ’s part.  John’s Gospel mentions that he was loved by the Lord.  He reclined next to Jesus, on His bosom, considering this a token of Christ’s surpassing affection toward him.

Jesus didn’t have favouritism, but this teaches us that those who are pure in heart are especially near to God and in the highest place of honour.  The Saviour Himself assigns this honour to them and says they are blessed for they shall see God.[3]  It’s for those who keep their mind unstained by the world and from an empty preoccupation with the things of the world, who have a renewed mind, and whose preoccupation is the things of God. 

“It seems that Christ reveals His own peculiar glory by a subtle and perhaps incomprehensible, mysterious process, thereby showing them the glory of the Father.” [4]  Didn’t Jesus say, “Whoever has seen Me has also seen the Father”?  Jesus came to reveal God to humanity, and those who have a pure heart, whose minds are focused on the things above,[5] will see God, even in this life.

John was so close to Jesus that at the crucifixion He entrusted the Blessed Virgin Mary to him, instructing him to take care of her (John 19:26).

John returned to Ephesus and died of old age, the only one of the Twelve to do so.

Beholding the glory of Jesus

The other Gospels include the story of the Transfiguration; only John’s doesn’t.  Jesus appears transfigured throughout John’s Gospel as the Lord of lords and King of kings; its theme is His divinity.  John used the whole Gospel to tell the story of the transfigured Son of God, who was from the beginning, and whose glory He revealed to humanity, that humanity might partake of the glory that Adam and Eve lost in the Garden.  In every scene, including the Passion narrative, Jesus is covered, permeated and suffused with the radiance of divine light.  Saint John saw Him as the Light of all lights, the divine Light of the world for all of us. 

The glory of Jesus is completely unique: man can only participate in that glory.  We have no glory in ourselves: our glorification is in Christ’s glorification.  His glory, or His presence, was manifested to His Apostles (John 1:14); at times they didn’t recognise it, but it was God in their midst.  When Jesus ate breakfast with them, it was God eating breakfast with them; when Jesus was in the boat, it was God in the boat with them.

Who do you see in the manger?

At Christmas we commonly see the crèche (Nativity scene).  It depicts the Child in a manger, with Mary and Joseph on either side, surrounded by animals.  When people look at the crèche, do they see a regular child, or do they see God in the Child?  This takes a revelation from God: it takes God to open our hearts, to illumine our hearts and minds; but the pure in heart will see God. 

This is a very important question for Christians and the world: Is He God, or man, or both?  To the surprise of many, the One who has come in the midst of us, the Child whose birth we celebrate in this season of Christmas, is the centre of the universe.  Man is the object of God’s love, but Jesus is the centre of creation: everything reflects the immanence of God in Christ.  God is the centre of Christianity; worship, the Church, and other things are secondary.  When we come to church, Jesus is the centre of our worship – not man, not my feelings.  He’s the centrepiece of all history, the cornerstone.  The world struggles with His identity: who is He?  John 1:14 answers this question: He has this unique glory as the Only-Begotten of the Father.

In the Old Testament, God instructed Moses to construct a tabernacle,[6] then Solomon built a temple, where God’s glory, His radiant power, would dwell in the midst of His people.  As the children of Israel travelled in the wilderness, His presence was with them through the tent, especially the mercy seat.  Moses was given specific measurements and materials – not for extravagance, but for beauty, to depict and point man ultimately to the heavenly tabernacle.  Rabbi Emil Hirsch said, “to the Greeks, the beautiful was holy; to the Jews” (I would add, to Christians) “the holy was beautiful”.  The purpose of beauty is to draw man’s heart closer to God.  In Europe, there are magnificent edifices for churches, reflecting human imagination of who God is – like God saying to Abraham, “look at the sky: can you count the stars in the heavens?”  When worshippers come to church and look upward, it’s as if they’re looking to the heavenly tabernacle.  It isn’t for extravagance – that’s a misunderstanding – it’s to bring heaven to earth, in an insufficient way, but the best man can accomplish.  Those who built churches like Notre Dame cathedral and the Dom of Cologne wanted people to have a glimpse of heaven in a special way, as far their imagination could go.  Such endeavour isn’t a waste – it’s to convey hope of a new heaven and a new earth. 

God is with us

The mystery of the Incarnation goes beyond buildings, temples and tabernacles.  The eternal Word in His divine glory, the Second Person of the Trinity, comes to dwell in the midst of humanity, not in temples made with hands, but in human flesh: “Behold, the Virgin shall be with Child and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel”, which translated means “God with us”.[7]

For ten months the world has been reeling, struggling against this pandemic.  Now the virus has mutated, and many people are afraid.  What do we fear?  We should fear nothing, because God is with us, and nothing can separate us from His love.  Don’t let your heart fear, be anxious or depressed.  Push it back: say it doesn’t belong to you.  With great conviction and assurance, we proclaim today Immanuel: God is with us through thick and thin, as He was with the disciples in the midst of the storm.  God is with us during this pandemic, and there’s nothing to fear.

What can we learn from Saint John? 

  • To strive to have a pure heart, a mind unstained by the world, and always think of heaven and God 
  • Let’s love God as John did, to the point of abandoning and making everything else secondary, and loving God with all our heart, soul and mind
  • To share God’s love with others
  • For parishioners of churches of Saint John, the reason we have his name is to know the heartbeat of God, to know and walk in God’s will, and to desire His will for our lives, families and communities

[1] The area around modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq

[2] The context of this conversation, at the Last Supper, was who would betray Jesus. 

[3] Matthew 5:8

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John

[5] Colossians 3:1-2

[6] A tabernacle is a fixed or temporary edifice, usually of light construction. 

[7] Matthew 1:23

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