Thought for the Day – 27 December – the Feast of St John the Apostle and Evangelist “The Disciple whom Jesus Loved” and the 3rd Octave Day
Taken From THE LITURGICAL YEAR, Abbot Dom Guéranger OSB, Book II
NEAREST to Jesus’ Crib, after Stephen, stands John, the Apostle and Evangelist. It was only right that the first place should be assigned to him, who so loved his God that he shed his blood in his service; for, as this God Himself declares, greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends, [St. John xv 13] and Martyrdom has ever been counted by the Church as the greatest act of love and as having, consequently, the power of remitting sins, like a second Baptism. But next to the sacrifice of Blood, the noblest, the bravest sacrifice and that which most wins the heart of Him Who is the Spouse of souls, is the sacrifice of Virginity. Now just as St Stephen is looked upon as the type of Martyrs, St John is honoured as the Prince of Virgins. Martyrdom won for Stephen the Crown and palm; Virginity merited for John most singular prerogatives, which, while they show how dear to God is holy Chastity, put this Disciple among those who by their dignity and influence are above the rest of men.
St John was of the family of David, as was our Blessed Lady. He was consequently a relation of Jesus. This same honour belonged to St James the Greater, his brother; as also to St James the Less and St Jude, both sons of Alpheub. When our Saint was in the prime of his youth, he left not only his boat and nets, not only his Father Zebedee but even his betrothed, when everything was prepared for the marriage. He followed Jesus, and never once looked back. Hence the special love which our Lord bore him. Others were Disciples or Apostles, John was the Friend of Jesus. The cause of this our Lord’s partiality was, as the Church tells us in the Liturgy, that John had offered his Virginity to the Man-God. Let us, on this his Feast, enumerate the graces and privileges that came to St. John from his being the Disciple whom Jesus loved.
This very expression of the Gospel, which the Evangelist repeats several times—–The Disciple whom Jesus loved [St. John xiii 23; xix 26; xxi 7; xxi 20]—–says more than any commentary could do. St Peter, it is true, was chosen by our Divine Lord to be the Head of the Apostolic College and the Rock whereon the Church was to be built: he, then, was honoured most; but St John was loved most. Peter was bid to love more than the rest loved and he was able to say, in answer to Jesus’ thrice repeated question, that he did love Him in this highest way: and yet, notwithstanding, John was more loved by Jesus than was Peter himself, because his Virginity deserved this special mark of honour.
Chastity of soul and body brings him who possesses it into a sacred nearness and intimacy with God. Hence it was that at the Last Supper—–that Supper which was to be renewed on our Altars to the end of the world, in order to cure our spiritual infirmities and give life to our souls—–John was placed near to Jesus, nay, was permitted, as the tenderly loved Disciple, to lean his head upon the Breast of the Man-God. Then it was that he was filled, from their very Fountain, with Light and Love: it was both a recompense and a favour and became the source of two signal graces, which make St John an object of special reverence to the whole Church.
Divine wisdom wishing to make known to the world the Mystery of the Word and commit to Scripture those profound secrets which, so far, no pen of mortal had been permitted to write, the task was put upon John. Peter had been crucified, Paul had been beheaded and the rest of the Apostles had laid down their lives in testimony of the Truths they had been sent to preach to the world; John was the only one left in the Church. Heresy had already begun its blasphemies against the Apostolic Teachings; it refused to admit the Incarnate Word as the Son of God, Consubstantial to the Father. John was asked by the Churches to speak and he did so in language heavenly above measure. His Divine Master had reserved to this His Virgin-Disciple the honour of writing those sublime Mysteries which the other Apostles had been commissioned only to teach—–THE WORD WAS GOD, and this WORD WAS MADE FLESH for the salvation of mankind. Thus did our Evangelist soar, like the Eagle, up to the Divine Sun and gaze upon Him with undazzled eye, because his heart and senses were pure and therefore fitted for such vision of the uncreated Light. If Moses, after having conversed with God in the cloud, came from the Divine interview with rays of miraculous light encircling his head: how radiant must have been the face of St John, which had rested on the very Heart of Jesus, in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge [Col. ii 3] how sublime his writings! how Divine his teaching! Hence the symbol of the Eagle, shown to the Prophet Ezechiel, [Ezech. i 10; x 14] and to St John himself in his Revelations, [Apoc. iv 7] has been assigned to him by the Church: and to this title of The Eagle has been added, by universal tradition, the other beautiful name of Theologian.
This was the first recompense given by Jesus to His Beloved John—–a profound penetration into Divine Mysteries. The second was the imparting to him of a most ardent charity, which was equally a grace consequent upon his angelic purity, for purity unburdens the soul from grovelling egotistic affections and raises it to a chaste and generous love. John had treasured up in his heart the Discourses of his Master: he made them known to the Church, and especially that Divine one of the Last Supper, wherein Jesus had poured forth His whole Soul to His Own, whom He had always tenderly loved but most so at the end. [1 St. John xiii 1] He wrote his Epistles and Charity is his subject: God is Charity—–he that loveth not, knoweth not God—–perfect Charity casts out fear—–and so on throughout, always on Love. During the rest of his life, even when so enfeebled by old age as not to be able to walk, he was for ever insisting upon all men loving each other, after the example of God, Who had loved them and so loved them! Thus, he that had announced more clearly than the rest of the Apostles the Divinity of the Incarnate Word, was par excellence the Apostle of that Divine Charity which Jesus came to enkindle upon the earth.
But our Lord had a further gift to bestow and it was sweetly appropriate to the Virgin-Disciple. When dying on his Cross, Jesus left Mary upon this earth. Joseph had been dead now some years. Who then shall watch over His Mother? Who is there worthy of the charge? Will Jesus send His Angels to protect and console her? For, surely, what man could ever merit to be to her as a second Joseph? Looking down, He sees the Virgin-Disciple standing at the foot of the Cross: we know the rest, John is to be Mary’s Son: Mary is to be John’s Mother. Oh! wonderful Chastity, that wins from Jesus such an inheritance as this! Peter, says St Peter Damian, shall have left to him the Church, the Mother of men; but John shall receive Mary, the Mother of God, whom he will love as his own dearest Treasur, and to whom he will stand in Jesus’ stead; whilst Mary will tenderly love John, her Jesus’ Friend, as her Son.
Can we be surprised after this, that St John is looked upon by the Church as one of her greatest glories? He is a Relative of Jesus in the flesh; he is an Apostle, a Virgin, the Friend of the Divine Spouse, the Eagle, the Theologian, the Son of Mary; he is an Evangelist, by the history he has given of the Life of his Divine Master and Friend; he is a Sacred Writer, by the three Epistles he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; he is a Prophet, by his mysterious Apocalypse, wherein are treasured the secrets of time and eternity. But is he a Martyr? Yes, for if he did not complete his sacrifice, he drank the Chalice of Jesus, [St. Matt. xx 22] when, after being cruelly scourged, he was thrown into a caldron of boiling oil before the Latin Gate at Rome. He was therefore a Martyr in desire and intention, though not in fact. If our Lord, wishing to prolong a life so dear to the Church, as well as to show how he loves and honours Virginity, miraculously stayed the effects of the frightful punishment, St John had, on his part, unreservedly accepted Martyrdom.
Such is the companion of Stephen at the Crib, wherein lies our Infant Jesus. If the Protomartyr dazzles us with the robes he wears of the bright scarlet of his own blood; is not the virginal whiteness of John’s vestment fairer than the untrod snow? The spotless beauty of the Lilies of Mary’s adopted Son and the bright vermilion of Stephen’s Roses——what is there more lovely than their union? Glory, then, be to our New-Born King, Whose court is tapestried with such heaven-made colours as these! Yes, Bethlehem’s Stable is a very Heaven on earth and we have seen its transformation. First we saw Mary and Joseph alone there: they were adoring Jesus in His Crib; then, immediately, there descended a heavenly host of Angels singing the wonderful Hymn; the Shepherds soon followed, the humble, simple-hearted Shepherds; after these entered Stephen the Crowned and John the Beloved Disciple; and even before there enters the pageant of the devout Magi, we shall have others coming in, and there will be each day grander glory in the Cave, and gladder joy in our hearts. Oh! this birth of our Jesus! Humble as it seems, yet how Divine! What King or Emperor ever received in his gilded cradle, honours like these shown to the Babe of Bethlehem? Let us unite our homage with that given Him by these the favoured inmates of His court. Yesterday the sight of the Palm in Stephen’s hand animated us and we offered to our Jesus the promise of a stronger Faith: today the Wreath that decks the brow of the Beloved Disciple breathes upon the Church the heavenly fragrance of Virginity: an intenser love of Purity must be our resolution, and our tribute to the Lamb.
Beloved Disciple of the Babe of Bethlehem! how great is thy happiness! how wonderful is the reward given to thy love and thy purity! In thee was fulfilled that word of thy Master: Blessed are the clean of heart; for they shall see God. Not only didst thou see this God-Man: thou wast His Friend and on His Bosom didst rest thy head. John the Baptist trembles at having to bend the head of Jesus under the water of Jordan; Magdalen, though assured by his own lips that her pardon was perfect as her love, yet dares not raise her head, but keeps clinging to his feet; Thomas scarce presumes to obey Him when He bids him put his finger into His wounded Side; and thou, in the presence of all the Apostles, sittest close to Him, leaning thy head upon His Breast! Nor is it only Jesus in his Humanity that thou seest and possessest; but, because thy heart is pure, thou soarest like an eagle up to the Sun of Justice and fixest thine eye upon Him in the light inaccessible wherein He dwells eternally with the Father and the Holy Ghost.
Thus was rewarded the fidelity wherewith thou didst keep intact for Jesus the precious treasure of thy Purity. And now, O worthy favourite of the great King! forget not us poor sinners. We believe and confess the Divinity of the Incarnate Word Whom thou hast evangelised unto us; but we desire to draw nigh to Him during this holy season, now that He shows himself so desirous of our company, so humble, so full of love, so dear a Child, and so poor! Alas! our sins keep us back; our heart is not pure like thine; we have need of a Patron to introduce us to our Master’s crib. [Isa. i 3] Thou, O Beloved Disciple of Emmanuel! Thou must procure us this happiness. Thou hast shown us the Divinity of the Word in the bosom of the Eternal Father; lead us now to this same Word made flesh. Under thy patronage Jesus will permit us to enter into the Stable, to stand near His Crib, to see with our eyes and touch with our hands [1 St. John i 1] this sweet Fruit of eternal Life. May it be granted us to contemplate the sweet Face of Him that is our Saviour and thy Friend; to feel the throbs of that Heart which loves both thee and us, which thou didst see wounded by the Spear, on Calvary. It is good for us to fix ourselves here near the Crib of our Jesus and share in the graces He there lavishes and learn, as thou didst, the grand lesson of this Child’s simplicity: thy prayers must procure all this for us.
Then too, as Son and Guardian of Mary, thou hast to present us to thine own and our Mother. Ask her to give us somewhat of the tender love wherewith she watches over the Crib of her Divine Son; to see in us the Brothers of that Child she bore; and to admit us to a share of the maternal affection she had for thee, the favoured confidant of the secrets of her Jesus.
We also pray to thee, O holy Apostle! for the Church of God. She was planted and watered by thy labours, embalmed with the celestial fragrance of thy virtues and illumined by thy sublime teachings; pray now that these graces may bring forth their fruit, and that to the end of her pilgrimage faith may be firm, the love of Jesus fervent, and Christian morals pure and holy. Thou has told us in thy Gospel of a saying of thy Divine Master: I will not now call you my Servants but my Friends: [St. John xv 15] pray, dear Saint, that there may come to this, from our hearts and lips, a response of love and courage, telling our Emmanuel that, like thyself, we will follow Him whithersoever He leads us.
Let us, on this second day after our Divine Infant’s Birth, meditate upon the Sleep He deigns to take. Let us consider how this God of all goodness, Who has come down from Heaven to invite His creature man to come to Him and seek rest for his soul, seeks rest Himself in our earthly home and sanctifies by His Own Divine sleep that rest which to us is a necessity. We have just been dwelling with delighted devotion on the thought of His offering His Breast as a resting-place for the Beloved Disciple and for all souls that imitate John in his love and devotedness: now let us look at this our God, sweetly sleeping in His humble Crib, or on His Mother’s lap.