Today, December 27th, the Church celebrates the feast of Saint John, the apostle. Of all the disciples (Peter being the exception), John seems to be held in the highest esteem, both by later Christians and by Christ himself. While Peter’s fame seems to derive from his prominent place in the Gospels as well as his leadership role among the apostles, John is known for both Christ’s affection for him, and for his sheer longevity. Although early Church Fathers considered the apostle John to be one and the same (consubstantial!) with the John who wrote the book of Revelation and the John who wrote the gospel of John (and three epistles), it is likely that these were two (if not three) different Johns. This article, then, will focus on John as an apostle.
In the gospels, we gather that John was one of the “main three” apostles. By this is meant that John’s name is most often invoked along with Peter and James during critical moments in the life of Christ. (For example, John was present at the transfiguration with the other two, was asked by Christ to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane with the other two, saw the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter with the other two, and probably accompanied Peter in investigating the empty tomb.) John was the brother of the apostle James (who I wrote about on his feast day, here), and as such was part of the duo Christ nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder.” This nickname appears to come from the quickness and fierceness of their passions when stirred to action. The “Sons of Thunder” were the apostles who, having been pushed to their limits, thought it prudent for Christ to make it rain fire over a Samaritan town that was particularly unwelcoming. Jesus, more even-tempered, rebuked them, and determined that maybe another town would be more hospitable.
While James was the first apostle to be martyred for the faith following the Resurrection, John lived an additional fifty plus years, possibly living to just shy of the turn of the 1st century. As an apostle who escaped martyrdom at an earlier age, John must have been a great source of information and comfort for the early Christians, including the gospel writers themselves. [It is also possible that John (and therefore James as well) was a cousin to Jesus, if tales of Mary having a sister named Salome, who was the mother of John and James, can be believed.]
What has always fascinated me most about Saint John is who he became toward the end of the gospels. At the Last Supper, John is seated at the right side of Jesus, in a place of honor, and frequently portrayed as leaning against Christ’s side. John 13:23 tells us that: “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.” This is likely John. (The image of John next to Christ in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is one of the most famous images of the event, and has been great fodder for fiction ever since its creation – most recently in the fantastical “Da Vinci Code” book and corresponding movie.) Following the betrayal and arrest of Christ, John is likely “the other disciple” (John 18:15) who went with Peter to the High Priests following Jesus’ arrest. Later, when all of the other (male) disciples have abandoned him, John remained at the foot of the cross. Here, above all, is where we see the love John and Jesus had for one another.
It is worth reading John 19:25-27 in full:
…Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
So at the foot of the cross, the only ones who have not abandoned Christ in his dying moments are three Marys (his mother, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene), his aunt (Salome? John’s mother?), and John himself.
Think of all of the gospels and how much of them are actually the words of Christ. Now isolate from those the words he spoke during his Passion, the most important moment in history. Of those few words he could speak, he addressed his mother, and he addressed John, and he entrusted them to one another. While this act of selflessness is but a microcosm of the selflessness of the ministry and cross itself, it is a moment in the Bible that has always touched me. Before dying, Jesus ensured that his mother and the disciple whom he loved found comfort in one another. Nevermind that he knew he would rise from the dead and be back… they were in for a difficult night, and a rough few days. And to ease their personal suffering, he addressed them from the cross, uniting them in that moment, and for the rest of their lives. For “from that hour” John “took her into his own home.”
What does it mean to take someone into your home, into your life? What does it mean to have a mother, to have a son? It means comfort, security, continuity, and love. Even as Jesus was literally suffocating to death, he wanted these things for his mother, and for his friend. In John 15:13, we read, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Here, at the Golgotha, Jesus does just this. And we, even today, are not excluded from his friendship. We, too, from this very hour, are free to take Mary into our own homes. She is our mother, too.
Saint John lived a long life, seeing more in his years than he probably ever imagined he would, including the dormition of Mary herself. He continued to live as an example to the early Christian communities, and is an example for us to this day.
As you go about your day today, spend some time with these verses (from John 15:12-17), and say a prayer to Saint John the apostle in Christ’s name, so that he might help you fully appreciate your own role in salvation history, and that you will accept the friendship that has been offered to you.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
[Video below is Ella Fitzgerald singing the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. One of my favorites.]