While today’s practicing Catholic in the U.S. complains about a virulent secular culture outside of the Church and scandal and crisis within her, the apostle whom Jesus loved had his own formidable challenges during his day. While we legitimately complain about the erosion of religious liberties in the U.S., he dealt with outright persecution, especially during the reigns of Nero and Domitian.
While we have grave concerns about the present scandal and crisis in the Church, John confronted his own enemies of the gospel. Though his enemies that surface in his First Epistle are difficult to specifically identify, the apostle called them antichrists, liars, deceivers, and false prophets who denied that Jesus was “the Christ” (2:22; 5:1) and “the Son of God” (2:23; 5:5) who had truly “come in the flesh” (4:2).
With affliction from without and within the Church, the life and writings of John are a good place for the earnest Catholic to retreat to for instruction, edification, and renewal. His Feast is excellent grist for the devotional and contemplative mill.
For example, sometimes when I’m going through a particular trial and there is a confusing, cacophony of voices in my head, I’ve never failed to be instructed and edified, by reading the First Letter of St. John in one sitting. This is a time investment of about 30 minutes that pays spiritual and emotional dividends for the rest of the day.
The Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is a vast banqueting table replete with appetizers, salads, entrees, and desserts. This article is by no means an exhaustive list of all that is on the menu but merely a beginning and conversation-starter.
A sampler plate with 5 different items:
The Gospel of St. John answers the question, “Does God play favorites?”, with a resounding “Yes!” The catechized Catholic says, “Why, of course, God plays favorites; we call those people saints.”
John is called the apostle that Jesus loved, he is given the seat of honor at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:23, 25), and, along with Peter and James, is a part of Jesus’ inner circle, who are present with Jesus in defining moments like the Transfiguration and in the Garden. What’s sometimes overlooked is that Yahweh in the Old Testament played favorites too.
He chose Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s and told Ezekiel that Israel was so far gone that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job lived in the land, he would still judge the nation severely though these three luminaries would save their own lives by their righteousness (Ezek. 14:20). This all should make perfect sense to the well-taught Catholic: does a “mob enforcer” who has a death-bed confession receive the same reward in heaven as Mother Teresa?
John’s life and writings give us a window of insight into what characterizes a close friend and favorite of Jesus. He wasn’t chosen to be a part of Christ’s inner circle because he was already a saint; he was chosen because he wanted to be a saint.
This is what Fr. Jacques Phillipe calls good faith. John had obvious problems with selfish ambition and anger (Mk. !0: 35-37; Lk. 9: 51-56), but his primary modus operandi was a single-minded focus on intimacy with Christ that is described in other biblical passages as the One Thing:
King David only wanted one thing: “…that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27: 4b). Jesus told Martha that only one thing was needful and Mary had chosen it: to sit at his feet, listen to his voice and bask in his presence (Lk. 10:38-42).
The apostle Paul counted all things as refuse except for one thing: an intimate knowledge of Christ characterized by knowing him in the power of his resurrection, fellowship of his suffering, and identification with his death (Phil. 3:10). Like John we must not lose the Forest (Christ) in looking at all the individual trees (the particulars of our faith).
The Feast of St. John also provides many clues as to what the abundant Christian life looks like: “Out of his fullness we have all received, grace for grace” (Jn. 1:16); “I am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).
Over and over I have seen Christians who did not get certain basic emotional needs (love, acceptance, belonging-ness) met in their childhoods try to get these needs met in their families, work, and ministries. Unfortunately, what happens is a certain type of idolatry sets in: they are not there to serve family members, co-workers, and fellow parishioners; instead these people exist to serve them.
In contrast, in John’s writings, we have Christ who is the fullness of the Trinity in a human body turning with an agenda to wash his disciples’ feet (Jn. 13). This provides an example for us.
We can get our spiritual and emotional needs met through Christ-in him we are loved, accepted, and belong (Eph. 1:3-14)-and then, out of this fullness, turn to others with a commitment to serve. He can also fill us through family, friends, and work, when we embrace a life of self-donation, and we turn back to them and return the favor.
In meditating on the Feast of St. John, we would be remiss to overlook his relationship to the Mother of God: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
We see this mutual affection in the recent (December 12th) Feast of the Apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe between Juan Diego and Our Lady. She met his needs for nurturing maternal care:
“Listen, and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son, do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your Fountain of Life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”
He met her needs for receiving the tender affection of a son and in aligning his life with her agenda, which was to build a shrine for her where she could “show him [Christ]…exalt him…make him manifest…give him to the people.” Diego humbly participated in her goal as Unifier in bringing the indigenous people and Spaniards together and John followed her purpose and vision in magnifying the Name of Christ in word and deed until the day he died.
It’s very significant that the symbol of the Gospel of John is the eagle. Just as the eagle can look directly into the sun, John’s Gospel starts in the heavens with the Word who was with God and who was God.
Heavenly themes abound in this narrative with the most substantive chapter on the Eucharist (Jn. 6), the Bread from Heaven and the Source and Summit of our faith, taking center-stage. In this present darkness, we desperately need strength from the Bread from Heaven to mount up with wings as eagles and rise above the many snares of our three primary enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Immersion in the life and writings of John also helps us maintain a heavenly perspective as we look to eternity and long for the Beatific vision. This may sound elusive and ethereal but its implications are very practical.
We need to look at the present through the lens of eternity and see what Daniel saw: “And to him [Christ] was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (7:14).
Being born and raised 18 miles east of Los Angeles, I grew up a devoted fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. When I was in college, some games were still tape-delayed.
Just before the Lakers were about to play a critical game 6 against the 76ers, my parents, a few hours before the tape-delayed game was about to be broadcast, let the cat out of the bag in telling me that the Lakers had won game 6 and were the new world champions.
I watched the game later that night with perfect calm because I knew the Lakers had already won. If you’ve read the New Testament and especially the Book of the Revelation, you know how this story ends: we win.
With 2018 coming to an end and 2019 just around the corner, may the Feast of St. John help you live your life in the light of eternity, seated with Christ at the right hand of God with all the peace that such a reality brings.