Fr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Feast of St. John the Evangelist
December 27, 1999
1Jn 1:1-4; Ps 97; Jn 20:2-8
St. John is clearly one of the great figures of the history of Christianity. This Son of Thunder was one of the three singled out among the apostles by the Lord to be present at both his Transfiguration in Glory on Tabor and his transfiguration as the Suffering Servant in Gethsemane. He alone among the apostles was present at the culmination of Christ’s life at Calvary. And when the Lord wanted to give all he had left in this world — his own mother — he chose to receive her, on behalf of the whole human race, this young fisherman from Capernaum.
But, as great a saint as he is, within this Christmas octave, we have to ask the practical question: Why, of the 365 days of the liturgical calendar, was the feast of St. John the Evangelist established two days after the birth of Christ? To celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family or the Feast of the Holy Innocents within the Christmas octave seems logical because of their intrinsic connection to the birth of Christ. To celebrate the memorials of SS. Thomas Becket and Sylvester during this period is straightforward, considering they died on the days the Church remembers them. It perhaps might have made sense to celebrate that great Evangelist of the Lord’s Infancy, St. Luke, during this period in which we hear from him more than any another of the four Gospel writers. But from the earliest calendars, we find celebrated the protomartyr Stephen on the day after Christmas and St. John on the 27th, although no documents coming to us from the early centuries give any reason to believe these would have been the dates on which they would have died. So the question recurs: why now?
I’ll leave the question of St. Stephen to whomever preaches here 365 days per now. I believe why the early Church established the feast of St. John two days after Christmas is because John, better than any of the synoptics, captured for us in his Gospel — and therefore allows us to capture — both the divine and human natures of the infant we adore in the Bethlehem stable.
Almost everywhere you see the saint we celebrate today depicted, you see him associated with what since the time of St. Irenaeus at the end of the second century has been his definitive symbol: the eagle. Irenaeus applied the four figures we find in Ezekiel (1:10) and the Book of Revelation (4:7) — man, lion, ox and eagle — respectively to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John was the eagle, so Irenaeus and those after him affirmed, because his Gospel soared into the ethereal heights of Christological mysticism. Nothing in the Synoptics can possibly compare with poetic profundity of John’s lofty prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The baby lying in the manger was indeed he “who was from the beginning.”
But if we were to stop here we would get an incomplete picture both of John and of Christ. Because in John’s writings, the eagle has landed. The celestial theology has come down to earth. The Word has become flesh and dwells among us. He proclaims the one “whom we have heard, whom we have seen with our eyes, whom we have looked upon and our hands have touched.” The eternal Godhead has taken on human nature and has become one with us, one of us, in all things but sin, he lives with us and our senses truly testify to his presence. This landed eagle is the true perspective on Christ that captures both his divine and human realities.
And how important it is for us to keep our eyes fixed on both realities when we behold the Child, because too often over the course of history and still today, Christians have focused on one to the exclusion of the other and this has led to great heresies. In the early Church, the Docetists and Gnostics focused on Jesus’ divinity to the exclusion of any humanity at all, that Jesus just had a human disguise. Some of the huge figures of the early Church in Alexandria promoted a Logos-sarx (a word-flesh) model of Christ that left many of their contemporaries in Antioch, and many theologians today, wondering whether they really believed that Christ was fully man as well. Today, there are huge Platonic streaks in Protestantism, which consider the flesh and corporality bad or morally worthless and therefore look on Christ and man through docetist lenses, while other Protestants use John’s mystical Gospel as a means to adopt an “intellectual” Christianity that allows a wide variety of belief and the exclusion of morality.
On the other hand, there are plenty of heresies — if we’re not afraid any longer to use the term appropriately — concerning those who uphold Jesus’ humanity to the exclusion of his divinity. Arius was the most famous historical posterboy for this position, but he finds company in the modern liberation theologians, who think Jesus was a human political liberator, in all those who a priori rule out the possibilities of miracles worked by the Word, and in all those — the most common strain today — who say that Christ was just a really good man, who taught a good ethic, etc. As the great Fulton J. Sheen said, however, Christ was either who he said he was — the Son of God made man — or a lunatic (for believing himself to be God’s son) or a terrible man (for trying to deceive everyone to believe he was the Son of God).
It is clearly a mystery how the Second person of the Blessed Trinity can take on human flesh and become fully human in the womb of a virgin. But it happened. And we adore this Truth made flesh in all his awesome mysterious majesty alongside his Mother, Stepfather, the shepherds, Magi, beasts and angels. At this Mass, we go even further. As St. John himself reminded us in his Gospel, Jesus said, “Unless you eat — literally gnaw (how’s that for a landed eagle!) — on the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” you will have no life in you.” At this altar, the Word who was from the beginning takes on flesh again, and we receive not just this flesh, not just his blood, but his soul and divinity as well. Such a reality so exceeds our understanding that it can be accessed only through prayer, as so we finish with St. Thomas Aquinas: Plagas, sicut Thomas, non intueor; Deum tamen meum te confiteor. Fac me tibi semper magis credere, in te spem habere, te diligere!