Saint John Apostle – Readings

Saint John Apostle – Commentary on the day’s Scripture readings

FIRST READING (1 John 1:1-4)
Today, on this feast of St John the Evangelist, we begin reading from the First Letter of John and will continue to do so until January 11.

The first four verses (1:1-4), which are today’s reading, form an Introduction to the letter.

Already at this early stage in the Church there were those who could not accept that the Son of God could have taken on a genuinely human body. In a mistaken zeal for the spiritual, they condemned everything material as evil and so they held that the humanity of Jesus could only be a mirage, an appearance. To be fully united with God meant to withdraw as much as possible from everything material.

The people who held such views were known as Gnostics and, because they are such a concern of the author of this Letter, we might list some of their main ideas:
1, The human body, which is matter, is evil. It is to be contrasted with God, who is totally spirit and therefore good.
2, Salvation is escape from the body, achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge. The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis, and hence their name.
3, Christ’s true humanity was denied in two ways: a, some said that Christ only seemed to have a human body, a view called Docetism, from the Greek dokeo, meaning ‘to seem’; and b, others said that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at Baptism and left him before he died, a view called Cerinthianism, after its most prominent spokesman, Cerinthus. It is this second version that we meet in 1 John 1:1; 2:22; 4:2-3.
4, Since the body was considered evil, it was to be treated harshly. This ascetic form of Gnosticism is the background to part of the letter to the Colossians (2:21-23).
5, Paradoxically, this dualism also led to licentious behaviour. The reasoning was that, since matter – and not the breaking of God’s law (1 Jn 3:4) – was considered evil, breaking his law was of no moral consequence.
The Gnosticism addressed in the New Testament was an earlier form of the heresy, not the intricately developed system of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Mention of Gnosticism can be found in John’s letters, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter, perhaps in 1 Corinthians.

The writings of John are a total rejection of this position. The Word not only became a human being, John, in his Prologue, says provocatively that the Word was “made flesh”. He fully entered into our material condition, blessed it and sanctified it.

And in today’s reading too he emphasises contact with a real, bodily Jesus. Although the Word “has existed since the beginning”, what “we have heard, we have seen with our own eyes, what we have touched with our hands. (Similarly after the Resurrection, Jesus invites the sceptical Thomas to touch and feel him. “Put your finger here and look at my hands; stretch out your hand and put it in my side.”)

And it is this physical, truly human, touchable Jesus that the Church proclaims. Over the ages, there has always been in the Church the tendency to withdraw from the material. In particular, there have been many problems with the human body and its sexual functions and even today, as Christians, we may feel awkward or embarrassed to speak about these things especially in a religious context.

Everything that God made is good. And as one medieval mystic liked to say, Every created thing is a Word of God. To those who can see, every created thing, living or inanimate, speaks of God and the Creator. Few poets have expressed this as well as the English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” and “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”.

This has all been affirmed by the Incarnation, by the infinite Son of God sharing our bodily human nature and all its functions.

And that Word is life in the sense of being the source of all real living, not just existing. In John’s gospel we read, “I have come that they may have life, life in its fullness” (John 10:10). This sharing of life is an idea most central to John’s spirituality. Union between all Christians results from common life shared by Christ between each Christian and God. It is that fellowship (a lovely word) expressing a close union of the believer with Christ (we think of the vine and the fruit-bearing branches) as well as communion with the Father and with all fellow-Christians.

Today’s passage presents a striking parallel to the prologue of John (Jn 1:1-18) but, whereas in the gospel passage the emphasis is more on Jesus as the pre-existent Word, here it is on the apostles’ witness to the ‘fleshiness’ and the ‘touchability’ of the Jesus they knew. In the best sense of the words, Jesus was a ‘real man’.

GOSPEL (John 20:2-8)
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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