John the Evangelist,
27 December 2015
Exod 33; I John 1; John 21.19-25
“What is that to you?”. For us to be celebrating this feast just two days after entering again into the mystery of the Incarnation seems almost too much: to be faced with these complex texts, especially the puzzling coda to John’s Gospel, set in that mysterious space between Resurrection and parousia and to try to bring it all into conversation with the gift of the Word made flesh... what are we to make of it all?
Yet there is also something satisfying and even comforting about the mysteriousness: Luke’s neat narratives, so precisely located in time and space, that invite us to picture the scene, can seem too limiting, too small and domestic to be a worthy vehicle for the inexpressible mystery that is unfolding before us. Even Matthew, with his veering from dream to reality, seems more easily tamed and squeezed into the ever more fantastic imaginings of a school nativity play. Perhaps you read the piece in the Tablet? Typically in these days, the eight year olds in the Roman Catholic primary school are very mixed. Abdul, a Moslem, wanted to play Joseph but Sister thought a Christian ought to do that, so asked him to be the innkeeper. At the performance, Abdul’s proud parents were prominent but, at the critical moment, as Joseph knocked, there was no answer. Sister tried gentle encouragement: “you know what to do darling; open the door”… but nothing. Abdul’s father, an imposing African, became impatient, “You open that goddamn door or I’ll belt your bum!” Finally, Abdul opens the door. “You can come in,” he says to Mary, “but you can piss off,” he shouts to Joseph. “Oh dear”, said Sister, “that’s not how I rehearsed it!”
Unpredictable, with hidden depths: such a nativity play that has departed so thoroughly from the Synoptic straight and narrow is suddenly more like the mysterious weaving of the fourth Gospel and the end is no less puzzling than its beginning, for all that the prologue is so deeply embedded in our memory and culture. Stuart Hampshire, the deeply agnostic philosopher, loved reading the opening of John’s Gospel at the College Carol Service, ‘for the incomparable beauty of the prose, though surely no-one can know what it means’ he said!
Perhaps it is, above all, this refusal to allow us to settle into a familiar, manageable landscape - such a key characteristic of the fourth Gospel - that speaks to us most on this feast, at this moment in the liturgical year. We are well aware that the increasing focus on the theology of the cross, championed by much of the Protestant world, seriously distorted the Western grasp of the Gospel as the second millennium unfolded. The Gospel of John is unique in setting before us the story of God as a continuum: yes, God is creator, yes God is redeemer, yes God is sanctifier but all this is continually the work of God, it is who God is and has been so from the beginning (and the beginning is before time itself). What we rightly recognise as miracle is God making Godself present to us in human form, right here, right now. As the Encyclical Laudato Si! puts it: ‘The prologue of the Gospel of John reveals Christ’s creative work as the Divine Word but then, unexpectedly, the prologue goes on to say that this same Word “became flesh”’,. Again, the fourth Gospel is particularly successful in conveying the reality of incarnation - Jesus is a very real, very mortal human being and yet Jesus is the splendour of the Father, Godself, creator, redeemer, sanctifier, present to us in the Son. This does not make sense. It is beyond comprehension. Yet it is the means by which we are awakened to the hope of glory. It is God’s address to God’s creation: not just to our rational minds but to all that God has made. All that is created in love is called to live in the light of the truth by the mystery of the Incarnation. No wonder we are puzzled, no wonder we can’t get our minds around it. So we begin to feel something of the force of Jesus’ question to Peter, “What is that to you?”. All too easily, in an attempt to get a handle on it all, we try to make some sense of it but we are engaging with the mind and work of God and no amount of mental gymnastics will do.
Laudato Si! again puts it well: ‘One Person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing in his lot with us, even to the cross. From the beginning of the world but, particularly, through the Incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy.’ The Gospel of John especially invites us to discover the deep rhythm of God, sounding unceasingly in, through and behind all the events of time and space. This is not a rhythm that can be simply incorporated into earthly patterns but one that calls us, as it were, to acknowledge that we are already living in a parallel universe, calling us, as Aunt Sybil in Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps heard, “rise to adore the mystery of Love”.
As we know, much ink has been spilled over the identity of the beloved disciple in the fourth Gospel. There is now almost no support at all for the notion that this is the author of the Gospel, himself one of the twelve. Most tend to the view that this is an historical figure, possibly someone with direct links to the first apostles and a member of the Johannine church. This uncertainty too brings richness. One of the most notable things about this character is that this is someone Jesus loved. Is this not all those who keep the Lord’s commandments - “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept the Father’s commandments and abide in his love”. (Jn 15.10,11) This strange coda to the Gospel then has a clear resonance for us and all who hear it in every generation. We are called to be the disciple whom Jesus loved - and every vocation is unique and particular. Our life, not in some vague corporate way but each individual life is ‘hid with Christ in God’, being woven into the tapestry of the new creation. This awareness of the unique mystery of every part of creation demands of us a new reverence for the material world, a new caution and reserve before putting our demands on to finite resources but, above all, a new discretio (to use St Benedict’s word) before the mystery of each person.
this day, the invitation is to us. We are called to take note of the Christ
hidden in the turning of the world, seeing, as the yearly rhythm once again
brings lengthening days and increasing light, the unending patience of our God
who works unceasingly drawing us to Godself. We are called to take note of the
mystery of creation, to wonder that this fragile earth can be a true expression
of the love of the Creator, despite all its brokenness, violence and pain and we
are called to wonder at the mystery of each other, beloved by the Lord as we, in
our faltering attempts, make a small offering of love to him. In praise of John
the Evangelist, let us rise to adore the mystery of love.