Monday, December 27, 2010

St John, Apostle and Evangelist

Ecclesiasticus 15:1-6 / John 21:19-24

Near the end of the Indian epic Ramayana, when the hero Rama, who is the avatara of Vishnu, the Most High God, decides to leave the world and ascend to the heavenly places, most of his companions decide to accompany him. However, one of them, Hanuman, who was his most intimate and loyal devotee, makes a remarkable request. Rather than leave the world and its troubles to enjoy the bliss of the heavens, Hanuman asks to remain upon the earth for as long as the praises of Rama are sung by men. His wish is granted, and so Hanuman joined the ranks of the chiranjivin, the immortals, who walk the world free from the inevitability of death.

How different is the life of another beloved disciple, not the mythical fancy of an Indian epic, but St John, the virginal apostle and evangelist, the one who laid his head on the breast of Jesus, his Lord, the Word made flesh and Son of God Most High. In the days after the Lord's resurrection, a rumor spread that suggested John was made a sort of Christian chiranjivi, that Christ the Lord had promised as Rama had to Hanuman, that John would not die until he returned to judge the world. John in his Gospel, however, is very clear that the Lord has been misunderstood. And Jesus did not say to him: He should not die; but: So I will have him to remain till I come: what is it to thee? This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things: and we know that he testimony is true. John, like all of the apostles, was appointed to die, even if, unlike the others, he was spared the trials of bloody martyrdom.

We might be tempted, as were those early disciples, to imagine that anyone so beloved of God, so intimate with God in the flesh, would be spared the horrors of death. After all, did not Jesus weep over the death of Lazarus, whom he loved? Did he not spare the virgin John, as he spared his Virgin Mother, the agonies of a painful death, and if so, might he not have spared them the disgrace of death altogether?

In thinking this way, we forget what the whole point of Christian life is on earth. We are here not simply to praise God every day of our lives. We should do that, of course, but the life of unending praise is the life of heaven, the life toward which we tend and hope, which we anticipate in worship, in sacrament, and in religious consecration. It is not, however, our principal task. Rather, our task is to become, day be day, little by little, in great conversions and in small turnings of the heart, more like the Lord who loved us so much as to assume our frail nature, die for us, and rise from the dead. Our life on earth is a pilgrimage, a discipleship, a chance to pattern ourselves not on the old Adam we inherit, but on the new Adam, made manifest to us as the silent Word, the Verbum infans at Christmas, gloriously exalted on the Cross, and splendid to behold in his Easter majesty. This means, then, that if we would love the Lord, if we would experience the love to which he calls us, is we are to heed his summons — Follow me. — then we must also taste death as he tasted death.

The Christian life, the life of intimacy which is so eminently manifested in the life of St John, is a conformity to the Word made flesh, not only in living, but in dying as well. May we seek less to be freed in this life from our troubles, but rather strive in searching out an intimacy with Jesus Christ to live and to suffer all things for the sake of his name.

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