Saint John – Gospel


Commentary on John 20:1a, 2-8

The Gospel tells us that John was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee. He and his brother were among the first to be called (together with Peter and Andrew) by Jesus. John, with Peter and James, were particularly close to Jesus and were privileged to experience the Transfiguration, the raising of the daughter of Jairus and the agony in the garden.

To John also is attributed the authorship of the Gospel which bears his name as well as the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) and three Letters (John 1,2 and 3). He is often identified as the “beloved disciple”, who is only mentioned in the Gospel of John. Tradition says that John died a natural death at a great age in Ephesus (on the west coast of modern Turkey).

Today’s Gospel describes the scene where Peter and the “beloved disciple” rush to the tomb of Jesus after being told by Mary Magdalen that the body is no longer there. Although the “beloved disciple” got there first, he deferred to Peter who went in first and saw the burial cloths. One of them – the piece that was wrapped around the face – was rolled up in a separate place. When the “beloved disciple” went in, “he saw and he believed.” In other words, he understood the significance of the cloth and he knew that his Lord had risen.

Later, the Risen Jesus will say to Thomas, “Bless are those who have not seen and have learnt to believe.” Here the disciple did not see the physical Jesus. Nevertheless, on the basis of what he did see, he believed.

The question is: what exactly did he see? What he saw was that the cloth which had covered Jesus’ head was not with the rest of the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Why should that trigger his conviction that the Lord had risen? The book of Exodus (chapter 34) describes how Moses, after coming down from the mountain and conversing with God, was so radiant with light that people were afraid to approach him. And so, he put a veil to cover his face. But “whenever Moses entered the presence of the Lord to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the Israelites all that had been commanded. Then the Israelites would see that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the Lord” (Exod 34:34-35).

Now some believe that the word ‘veil’ used in John is a Greek translation of the word in Hebrew used about Moses. In other words, the veil covering the face of the dead Jesus is now no longer needed because he has gone face to face with his Father. This veil was the humanity of Jesus which enabled us to look at our God. Jesus now has a new human body – his Church. And that was what led to the “beloved disciple’s” conviction that his Master had risen to new life.

For some commentators, the “beloved disciple” is not actually John but represents any person who has totally committed himself or herself to the following of Jesus, anyone who deeply believes and anyone who is passionately fond of Jesus. At times, as in today’s Gospel, the faith of the “beloved disciple” is shown as surpassing that of Peter. While the disciples we know of had fled after the arrest of Christ, it is the “beloved disciple” who stands with the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross.

Nevertheless, John as the author of the Fourth Gospel and the three letters attributed to his name, reveals a depth of faith and insight into the meaning of Christ’s life, death and resurrection that borders on the mystical and clearly reveals a faith of extraordinary depth. It is a faith and insight we can pray to have for ourselves.

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