Today is the feast day of St John the Evangelist, who I chose as my patron when I was confirmed.
St John the Evangelist, like Shakespeare, has something about him which irresistibly attracts the crank, and probably more books have been written and more wildly fantastic theories advanced about his writings and their authorship than about any other writer who ever lived. The reason may perhaps lie in the strange twosidedness of his character. How, says the critic, can works so profound have been written by a mere Galilean fisherman? How can the author of the Johannine epistles, with their message of love and brotherhood, be the fire-breathing visionary of the Apocalypse? Or how can the ‘Son of Thunder’ who wanted Christ to call down fire from heaven upon the inhospitable Samaritans (Luke 9:54) be identified with the gentle ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ and to whom he bequeathed the care of his Blessed Mother? Yet no theory of multiple authorship will fit the facts, for all these different St Johns are intimately and inextricably mingled in all the Johannine writings. The unlearned fisherman is there-in the extreme simplicity of syntax and vocabulary. The mystical theologian is there-in the Prologue (John 1:1ff), the Discourse in the upper room (John 13 to 17) and the First Epistle. The Son of Thunder is there-in the truculent speeches of Jesus and in St John’s own denunciation of ‘Antichrist’ (I John 2:18ff). The differences between the Apocalypse and the other writings are balanced by equally striking similarities. Even in the anecdotes of St John’s old age, preserved by secondcentury writers, we find the same contrast. The aged bishop of Ephesus, who condensed all Christian teaching into the one imperative, ‘Little children, love one another,’ was the same St John who refused to enter a public bath-house where Cerinthus the heretic was known to be, for fear lest fire from heaven should destroy the very building (fire from heaven again”). In short, we are still in the same position as those priests who interrogated St John after Pentecost (Acts 4:13) and who, ‘discovering that Peter and John were simple men, without learning, were astonished.’ Astonishment: that is what everyone must feel who comes to close quarters with St John.
It is as well to remember, of course, that at least fifty years-half a century of prayer and meditation, of teaching and debate-separate St John the Apostle from St John the Evangelist. As a very young man he had listened to John the Baptist, and when the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ he had transferred his allegiance to our Lord. A few months later, when he and his elder brother James were helping their father with his fishing, Jesus called to them, ‘and they, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, turned aside after him’ (Mark 1:20). Thereafter these two, with Peter, became the closest and most constant companions of Christ. They alone were with him at the raising of Jairus’s daughter, at the Transfiguration and in Gethsemane. After the resurrection they became, along with James son of Alphaeus, the ‘pillars of the Church’ (Galatians 2:7) in Jerusalem; but after his elder brother had been beheaded by Herod (C. 44 A.D.) St John seems to have left Palestine, and it is James the Less who is bishop of Jerusalem at the time of St Paul’s last visit (c. 57 A.D.). Of St John’s own movements between then and his exile on the island of Patmos we know nothing. Even the date of that exile is uncertain, depending on whether we take the wicked emperor of the Apocalypse to be Nero or Domitian. But all authorities agree that he spent his later years at Ephesus, acting as patriarch to the churches of Asia; that he died there at a great age, about the end of the century; and that it was only in these later years that he consented, under pressure from his disciples, to commit his Gospel to writing.
Everything that St John ever wrote could be contained in quite a small booklet, yet so rich is the vein that one is embarrassed to know how best to sample it in such a brief note as this. Should one concentrate on the famous ‘Logos-doctrine’-that Christ was the ‘Word’ of God, the word by which he created all things and by which he spoke to Moses and the prophets? Or should one discuss St John’s insistence on Faith-by which he meant not only belief in the divinity of Christ but also an absolute and boundless trust? He certainly abhorred all heretics, especially those who denied the actual, earthly, fleshly reality of God-made-man in this world. Or should one concentrate on John the contemplative, the spiritual father of all Christian monks and nuns? Or on the visionary of the Apocalypse? Or on the poet of the Gospel prologue?
St John himself would probably have said that the whole of him is summed up in the single sentence of his first Epistle (I John 4:8), that ‘God is love.’ It was love which had brought God down to earth in the person of Jesus, and it is only by love-of God and of his fellowmen-that a man can join himself, through Christ, to God. And this union with God-for the body in the Blessed Sacrament, for the mind and will by faith and good works-is the only thing that matters. It is life and light and victory and bliss, here and everywhere, now and forever. But it can all be summed up and bound together by the one word ‘love.’ Love of God implies faith and trust and obedience. Love of our neighbor implies all that is meant by ‘right conduct.’ All goodness, all happiness, all wisdom is included in that single word.
‘And he who sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. I am Alpha, I am Omega, the beginning of all things and their end; those who are thirsty shall drink–it is my free gift–out of the spring whose water is life. (Revelation 21:5.)
Jesus had promised that water to Nicodemus (John 3:5), to the Samaritan woman (John 4:13) and to all the world (John 7:37), but it is St John who most simply and clearly shows us where the well of it is to be found. ‘God,’ says St John, and he was the first to say it, among all the philosophers, prophets and saints of the world, ‘God is love,’ and only in his love can the thirst of all the world be quenched.
God is love; God, in fact, is Love. Which is significant for the other festival my family celebrated today. It is 39 years ago today since my husband and I exchanged our wedding vows. From the first, there have been three in this relationship, and in the times when we had little love to exchange with one another, God’s love was all that sustained us and our marriage. I mentioned to one daughter today that we’d had 39 wonderful years. ‘Were they all wonderful?’ she asked. I paused for a moment. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘they were all full of wonder – sometimes we wondered “Why are we doing this?” – but certainly 39 years full of wonder.’
On our wedding day, my husband gave me a locket engraved ‘together – today, tomorrow, always’. Most of the last 39 years have been great fun. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, and always.