John and the Church of Contemplation

The apostle John appears to have been quite the hothead. In the Gospel narratives, he frequently comes off as the angry young man, full of passionate loves and equally passionate hates. It’s John getting ticked when outsiders start swanning around like they own the joint and casting out demons in the name of Jesus:

“John said in reply, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you’” (Lk 9:49-50).

Likewise, it’s John who wants to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans — and who gets a stern rebuke from Jesus for it (Lk 9:51-56).

Moreover, it’s John and his brother James who ambitiously go to Jesus (along with their Mom) and try to get a leg up on the rest of the apostles by asking Jesus to give them the best seats in the kingdom, at his right and left hand (Mt 20:20-28).

It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus nicknames Zebedee’s boys “Boanerges” or the “Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3:17). These are not shrinking violets but guys who live out loud, tell you what they think and want it all. There is a thirst for life in John. He wants to understand what is going on, and he listens when Jesus speaks. More than that, he ruminates on it when he gets an answer. For, make no mistake, John sees Jesus as Lord with a capital L. That is why, even during his earthly ministry, John is already convinced that Jesus is going to get that kingdom of his father David, and he wants in on the ground floor.

Evangelist’s wisdom

There’s a bit of “Good Will Hunting” in John. We tend to assume that because he was a fisherman, he was of average intelligence and not well-educated. We like the myth of the simple country soul illuminated purely by the Holy Spirit who suddenly takes up pen and pours forth profound literature, like some Samwise Gamgee instantaneously transformed into a kind of theological Shakespeare.

But in fact the text makes clear that John is both highly intelligent and was well-educated in Jerusalem. That is why he is “known to the high priest” and can get into the court of Caiaphas to witness the trial of Jesus (Jn 18:15). This should not surprise us. Genius can appear anywhere, and John’s father was, in fact, a businessman well-off enough to get this gifted young man a good education. This is evidenced in the text of his Gospel itself, one of the most astonishingly rich, subtle and theologically dense texts in the entire history of world literature. You can read it forever and never get to the end of the layers of meaning that he very carefully crafted into it in deceptively simple-sounding prose. John was a man who thought very deeply about what Jesus said and did, and he probed it all for meaning right down to the roots.

Seeing the big picture

As he does so, John devises his own unique vocabulary to express what he sees. John sees massively sacramental significance in a world where all things are providentially ordered to Christ. He takes seriously Jesus’ words to the disciples on Easter Sunday that, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44).

Because of this, it is second nature to John to write at multiple levels at the same time. He sees — because Jesus taught him to see — the Old Testament as full of signs pointing to Jesus, which is why the Church of Contemplation pairs a reading from the Old Testament with the Gospel in the Mass. The manna in the wilderness is a sign of the Eucharist (Ex 16; Jn 6). The bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the sight of Israel to heal the people from snakebite (Nm 21:4-9) is a sign pointing to Jesus lifted up on the cross to heal us from the ultimate snakebite: the one received from “the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (Rv 12:9; cf. Jn 3:14). The temple is a sign pointing to the body of Jesus Christ himself (Jn 2:19).

The pierced side of Jesus and the blood and water that flows from it is not a mere medical problem of cardiac rupture. It is the sign of the creation of the Bride of Christ from the side of the Last Adam, just as Eve was made from the side of the first Adam (Gn 2:21-24). John sees not pericardial fluid flow from the side of Christ, but the water of baptism that washes and purifies that Bride. That is why he says, “This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood. The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth. So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and the three are of one accord” (1 Jn 5:6-8).

Following Christ

For John, all of creation is ordered toward the will of God and the glory of Jesus. Indeed, even Christ’s enemies bear witness to him, as when Caiaphas says to those deliberating what to do about Jesus after the raising of Lazarus, “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (Jn 11:50). The whole drama of the Passion is not something that happens to Jesus but something that unfolds in the divine will with Jesus himself in control. So John tells us that Jesus was always knowing “that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (Jn 13:3). The Passion is not, for John, a tragedy or accident in which the story somehow got away from God, but a culmination to which all of history has been moving.

Pope Benedict XVI on St. John
In his July 5, 2006, general audience, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of John’s role in the early Church.

Not, of course, that John got all this at the time. He does not anticipate the suffering Jesus is to endure, and still less the Resurrection. As he himself makes clear, the Resurrection still doesn’t dawn on him, even when he stands in the mouth of the empty tomb:

“So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned home” (Jn 20:3-10).

This scene beautifully summarizes the relationship not only between John and Peter but between the Church of John and the Church of Peter. Very often, it is the Contemplative who gets there ahead of the Church of Office, sees and believes — even when he is not quite sure what is he is seeing and believing.

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John comes to some kind of conclusion about Jesus as he stands there. Perhaps the women are right. Perhaps Jesus’ promise is somehow fulfilled. But he waits for Peter to go in first and verify. His faith is real, but it is maintained in union with the Church and not like the Lone Ranger. In this, he acts just as true contemplatives from St. Augustine to St. Thomas to the great theologians down through the ages have: waiting for the Church to give the final verdict on questions. John illumines Peter with his insights, and Peter confirms John with his authority.

Mark Shea writes from Washington.