The Christmas feasts come thick and fast this week: St John the Evangelist; Holy Innocents; St Thomas of Canterbury; Mary the Mother of God; and before we have had time to draw breath, Epiphany, which is for many the greatest feast of Christmastide, when gentiles are admitted alongside Jews to experience the salvation of God.
All these feasts are a reminder that we are not to linger beside the crib. The martyrdom of Stephen (not celebrated this year because of Sunday’s feast of the Holy Family) showed us clearly that following Christ will be costly. What then of John, whose feast we keep today?
There is so much mystery about John. Is he the Beloved Disciple; did he actually write all the works attributed to him; was he spared a martyr’s death; did he live and die at Ephesus? Above all, what kind of man was he, how did he understand God, why does he seem so different from all the other early writers of the Church?
Forests have been felled and seas of ink consumed in an effort to answer these questions, but I think we can, without argument, claim him as the Church’s first mystic. Mysticism gets a bad press these days, mainly because of the vapid, New Age travesty of the same: the reality is much less cosy, much closer to John’s own terrifying vision on Patmos, a glimpse of God as he is, as terrible as he is beautiful.
John’s profound meditation on the meaning of Christ’s words and actions, his insistence on the primacy of love and forgiveness in building up the Christian community, is a lesson for us all. It is only when we welcome the Word into our lives and allow ourselves to be changed by him that we begin to understand what is asked of us and what it means to be a child of God. What happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago has opened for us the way to salvation, but the journey cannot be completed without passing through Death and Resurrection.