By John Bauerschmidt
I fell into the orbit of St. John the Evangelist quite early, without being aware of it. We share a name, after all; although in my case it was my grandfather’s, with no immediate connection to the Evangelist. But as it happened, I was baptized after Christmas, on the feast of St. John, in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Evangelist. Date and location were determined by the convenience of the Christmas holiday, and the proximity of my grandparents’ church, together creating a weighty coincidence.
Later, other factors provided increased gravitational pull. I remember hearing the Gospel of John for the first time, as a teenager and new churchgoer, at my first Christmas Mass: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Encountering this text for the first time in the context of the liturgy was a powerful experience. In those days (still), the so-called “last Gospel,” or the reading of John’s prologue repeated at the end of the Eucharist, reinforced the lesson.
As a seminarian, my first spiritual directors were members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and my spiritual formation began to reflect the further influence of John’s Gospel, refracted through the spiritual vision of the Society’s founder, Fr. Benson. The conviction grew within me that a spiritual influence that might have been viewed as merely coincidental was in fact providential. Either I had found the saint, or the saint had found me.
Reflecting theologically, the witness of the saints has been important to Christian identity. The Book of Revelation depicts, as part of its apocalyptic vision, “a great multitude… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white…. These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9,14). The emphasis in the New Testament letters on Christian sanctity, on the “saints” who constitute the membership of the Church, soon grew into an emphasis on the extraordinary witness of the martyrs, and a desire for their spiritual patronage.
Peter Brown chronicles the way in which the veneration of the martyrs, in the early Church, was influenced by the social relationship between influential patrons and dependent clients. Christians now sought friends in heaven, akin to the patrons they sought on earth. As Brown puts it in his book, The Cult of the Saints, “the need for intimacy with a protector with whom one could identify as a fellow human being, relations with whom could be conceived of in terms open to the nuances of known human relations between patron and client, is the hallmark of late-fourth-century Christian piety.” The martyrs were friends of God, gathered before the throne; as our patrons, they could intercede with God, and help lead ordinary Christians into closer relationship with him.
The Reformation in England led to a radical deemphasis on the role of the saints. Shrines and relics were destroyed; pilgrimage ceased. Yet the influence of the saints remained in many places, reflected in liturgies and other aspects of the life of the Church. In Anglicanism, parishes and cathedrals continued to be dedicated to the saints, remaining at least notionally under their patronage. The calendar of the Church of England was pruned of many commemorations of saints, yet the main feasts of the Apostles and Evangelists were retained, along with the cycle of feasts of Our Lord (including “the Annunciation of our Lady,” St. Mary). If the intercession of the saints was not explicitly sought, consciousness of their unique witness, and our continuing relationship with them in the communion of saints, still remained.
In this company, St. John the Evangelist found his place. Traditionally, John was identified as the brother of James, both sons of their father Zebedee and both numbered among the Twelve. Authorship of the gospel is ascribed by tradition to John; also, the three epistles that bear his name, as well as the Revelation that closes the New Testament. These ascriptions are all contested.
Within the Gospel of John itself, the identification of the author with “the beloved disciple” is also a subject of debate. Was the disciple who reclined next to Jesus at the last supper (John 13:22) the same as the writer of the gospel? Legend had it that Jesus whispered the opening of John’s prologue into his ear at the supper. Again, tradition says that John was the only one among the Twelve not to suffer martyrdom. The fact that we know very little about the apostles, apart from what we learn from the New Testament and Christian tradition, should leave us with no surprise that these contested issues of identity are unlikely to be resolved.
Whatever uncertainty may exist about these things, the author of the Fourth Gospel reflects an insight that is key to our understanding of the communion of saints: friendship with God. Jesus teaches his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Friendship with Jesus is linked to love within the fellowship. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). We are friends with Christ and with each other, within the communion of saints.
John’s Gospel offers us the Jesus who invited others into friendship with him, and with each other. The gospel writer had a keen grasp of the power of love and friendship. He gives us the Lord in his relationship with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus says to the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (John 11:11). Though Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters, he delays visiting Bethany when Lazarus is ill, and then weeps at his grave. “The Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (John 11:36).
If Roman ideas of the relationship between patrons and clients influenced the early Christian veneration of the saints, and created a desire for their protection, the ground for this had already been prepared by St. John’s vivid sense of Jesus and his followers as friends. The reality of this friendship in Christ, overcoming the barriers of time and space, grounds our own renewed understanding of the witness of the saints, and our appreciation of their advocacy and intercession on our behalf. We have kinship and intimacy with each other, within the communion of saints, and this fellow feeling is something to celebrate. We are friends, after all, in the Lord. St. John the Evangelist, pray for us!