John’s Gospel always seems to go its own way with regard to the traditions of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a Gospel filled with its own symbolism and message, and nowhere is this more evident than in the passion and resurrection narratives of the Fourth Gospel.
The special focus of John is seen already in the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening. Rather than an account of the establishment of the Eucharist, which is not found in John, we have the scene of the washing of the feet (13:1-15). This does not indicate a Johannine lack of interest in eucharistic theology. On the contrary, the extensive discourse on the Bread of Life (6:1-71) shows that John contains a broad and deep eucharistic theology.
The reference to Judas the Betrayer at the end of the discourse (6:71) propels the reader forward to the Last Supper scene itself, where the devil is said to have induced Judas to betray Jesus (13:2). That this hurtful betrayal of a member of Jesus’ inner circle occurs in the midst of such an intimate meal is all the more ironic. But it also affords Jesus an occasion to teach His disciples — not by word, but by deed.
After Jesus has completed the startling act of a slave by washing the feet of His disciples, He explains: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done to you, you should also do” (13:15). Eucharistic theology here is transformed into an act of service to others.
The love that is celebrated at the table of the Lord is to make its way into the world. Indeed, this narrative is appropriately placed at the beginning of the second half of John, the Book of Glory (chs. 13–20) to orient us to the climax in the passion and death of Jesus, where His service becomes total in the gift of His life.
Good Friday: The Passion
John’s narration of the passion (chs. 18–19) is always read on Good Friday, and appropriately so. It is the most dramatic of the four accounts. It is also fraught with rich symbolism that has always captivated Christian imagination.
Although the basic story of the passion is the same in all four Gospels, John has several unique aspects. Most noticeable is that the portrayal of Jesus here is imbued with the dignity befitting a king. He, the Light of the World, is arrested at night when His opponents come with lamps to light their way. Furthermore, Jesus knows everything that is happening to Him (18:4). He even initiates the arrest by asking who they are seeking. They respond, Jesus the Nazorean, to which Jesus’ solemn “I AM” makes them fall to the ground. Naturally, what is being evoked is the divine name of God, which is why translations put the expression in capital letters.
Even after Jesus has been cruelly scourged and mocked as a fake king, His “royal” vestments (the color purple, not scarlet as in Matthew) are never said to have been removed when He is crucified. In essence, the cross is his throne. The interrogations of Pilate, his refusal to accept responsibility for the miscarriage of justice, but also his failure to recognize the “Truth” before him makes Pilate seem a pathetic, weak figure. He holds on to earthly pretensions of power, while the real power who could, if He wished, crush the Roman Empire, humbly submits to His mistreatment.
Unlike the Synoptics, John does not show Jesus completely abandoned at the crucifixion. His mother and the Beloved Disciple are there. They are entrusted, one to the other, by Jesus from the cross. In this precious act, John shows us a novel understanding of “Church.” Jesus came to establish a new “family,” not one built on bloodlines but on discipleship. His own mother and the Beloved Disciple are at its core.
Another noticeable detail in John is the piercing of Jesus’ side by a soldier’s lance (19:34). Out of Jesus’ own side flowed “blood and water.” While there may by physiological explanations for this phenomenon, more likely is its symbolic value. These are sacramental symbols for baptism and Eucharist, two essential sacraments for the life of the Church.
The resurrection is at the very heart of Christian faith. John’s Gospel is not different than any other New Testament writing in emphasizing the centrality of this belief. But even here, John has a unique perspective seen in the almost competitive presence of two prominent disciples in the resurrection story, Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciples (20:1-9). Recounted on Easter Sunday morning, the story presents us with the ultimate choice that must be made in faith. Seeing an empty tomb is not sufficient to believe.
At Mary Magdalene’s announcement of the resurrection, these two disciples ran to the tomb, with the younger Beloved Disciple getting there first but then deferring to Simon Peter’s arrival before entering. Simon Peter entered first and saw the evidence of the burial cloths. But the Beloved Disciple then entered, saw the same thing, and “saw and believed” (20:8).
This contrast is important because, as we celebrate Easter, our own faith can be challenged as well. The point of John’s Gospel is to give a reliable witness in order that others may be sustained in, or come to, faith (20:31; cf. 19:35). Simon Peter clearly went on to greatness as the spokesman of the apostles and, by later Christian tradition, first bishop of Rome.
The Beloved Disciple, however, was the important source of faithful testimony for the Johannine community. In him, faith and love are joined.
Appearances of the Risen Lord
John’s message continues throughout the Easter season, culminating with the great solemnity of Pentecost. Appearances of the risen Lord are narrated on the Second Sunday of Easter (20:19-31) and Pentecost (20:19-23).
The reading for the Sunday after Easter, known since Pope John Paul II’s time as Divine Mercy Sunday, records two separate appearances to disciples by the risen Lord. In the first instance, Jesus mysteriously enters the locked room where the disciples are huddled in fear. He bestows “peace” upon them and then breathes the Holy Spirit on them, giving them the power to forgive sins or hold them bound.
Fulfillment of Jesus’ Mission
This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission all along. As He explains: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21). The disciples now share in the ministry of the risen Lord. They communicate the Lord’s presence in every age by virtue of this commission.
The second scene is the famous appearance to the same disciples, this time in the presence of one who had been absent, Thomas, the Twin. It seems there have always been skeptics among the disciples! Thomas is the “show-me-and-I-will-believe-it” kind of guy. So Jesus appears, again wishes peace upon them, and invites Thomas to touch the wounds in His hands and side. Thomas is bowled over. He exclaims the great assent of faith: “My Lord and my God” (20:28).
But there is something more important here. Jesus’ comment is crucial for us to hear: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (20:29). This reaffirms the purpose of John’s Gospel — to bring people to faith. Now, some two centuries later, we find ourselves as part of the great cloud of witnesses from the past who have not physically seen the Lord and yet who believe in His concrete presence and action in the world.
The Gospel for Pentecost repeats the first part of this set of appearance stories. The obvious reason is the mission that the risen Lord bestows upon the disciples. They are sent out to be bearers of peace and reconcilers of human beings. They are to forgive sins for those who seek to have them forgiven or to retain the sins of those not ready for forgiveness.
The Catholic Church, especially since the Council of Trent, has seen in this passage the authority for the exercise of the sacrament of Penance.
More recently, Pope Francis has called for a Church that is more merciful, forgiving and reconciling — values consistent with the orientation of the Gospel of John. Yet the Johannine tradition always emphasizes faith as a decision that results from loving contact with the Lord. People must choose to believe. It does not come automatically, nor can it be forced.
The Gospels of Passiontide and the Easter season this year, then, are a rich resource in Johannine theology. The perceptive preacher will be able to pick up on some of the themes present in these readings and adapt them to local circumstances.
FATHER WITHERUP, S.S. is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice. Among his many publications is Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press, 2013).