Octave of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist
by Dom Prosper Gueranger, 1870
The Octave of the Beloved Disciple closes today: let us devoutly offer him our parting homage. We shall meet him again, during the year; for, on the 6th of May, when the Resurrection of his Divine Master is gladdening the Church with the Easter joys, we shall have the Feast of our Apostle’s Confession, made before the Latin Gate;–but his grand Feast ends today, and he has done too much for us this Christmas, that we should allow this Octave Day to pass without returning him our warmest thanks. Let us begin by exciting ourselves to a great reverence for our Saint; and for this end, let us continue the considerations, we were making this day week, on the favours conferred upon him by Jesus.
The Apostolate of St. John produced a plentiful harvest among the people to whom he was sent. The Parthians received the Gospel from him, and most of the Churches of Asia Minor were founded by him. Of these latter, seven, together with their Angels, were chosen by Christ himself, to typify the several kinds of Pastors; and probably, as some have interpreted this passage of the Apocalypse, these Seven may be taken as representing the seven Ages of the Church herself. Neither must we forget, that these Churches of Asia Minor, shortly after St. John had founded them, sent Apostles into our western Europe. Thus, for example, the illustrious Church of Lyons was one of the conquests made by these early Missioners; and St. Pothinus, the first Bishop of Lyons, was a disciple of the disciple of St. John– St. Polycarp–the Angel of the Church of Smyrna–whose Feast we shall keep a few days hence.
But St. John’s apostolic labors in no wise interfered with the care, which his own filial affection and the injunctions of our Savior imposed upon him–the care of the Blessed Mother and Virgin Mary. So long as Jesus judged her visible presence on the earth to be necessary for the consolidation of his Church, so long did John enjoy the immense happiness of her society, and of being permitted to treat her as his most beloved Mother. After a certain number of years, during which he had dwelt with her in the city of Ephesus, he returned with her to Jerusalem, whence she ascended to heaven from the desert of this world, as the Church sings of her, as a pillar of smoke of aromatic spices of myrrh and frankincense. The holy Apostle had to bear this second separation, and continue preaching the Gospel until that happy day should come, when he also should ascend to that blissful region, where Jesus his Divine Friend, and Mary his incomparable Mother, were awaiting his arrival.
The Apostles, those Lights placed by the hand of Jesus himself upon the candlestick3 of the Church, died out by martyrdom one after the other, leaving St. John the sole survivor of the Twelve. His white hair, as the early Fathers tell us, was encircled with a thin plate of gold, the mark of episcopal dignity; the Churches treasured up the words which fell from his inspired lips, and considered them as their rule of Faith; and his prophecy of Patmos, the Apocalypse, proves that the future of the Church was also revealed to him. Notwithstanding all this, John was humble and simple, like the Divine Infant of Bethlehem; and one cannot read without emotion what the early writers tell us of him, how he was often seen fondling a pet bird in his venerable hands. He that had, when young, leaned his head upon the Breast of that God, whose delights are to be with the children of men–that had stood near his Lord during the Crucifixion, when all the other Apostles kept away in fear–that had seen the soldier’s Spear pierce the Sacred Heart, which so loved the world– when old age had come upon him, was for ever urging upon all he met the duty of loving one another.
His tender compassion for sinners was such as we might naturally look for from the favorite Disciple of the Redeemer; and we are not surprised at that example–which would have been wonderful in any other Saint than John–of his going in search of a young man, whom he had loved with a Father’s love, and who had abandoned himself, during the Apostle’s absence, to every sort of sin: old age was no hindrance to this fatiguing search, which ended in his finding the young man amidst the mountains, and leading him back to repentance.
And yet, this same gentle and loving Saint was the inflexible enemy of heresy; for heresy, by destroying Faith, poisons Charity in its very source. It is from this Apostle, that the Church has received the maxim she gives to us–of shunning heresy as we would shun a plague: If any man come to you and bring not the doctrine of Christ, receive him not into the house, nor say to him “God speed thee;” for he that saith unto him, “God speed thee,” communicateth with his wicked works. St. John having, one day, entered one of the public baths, he was no sooner informed that the heresiarch Cerinthus was in the same building, than he instantly left the place, as though it were infected. The disciples of Cerinthus were indignant at this conduct of the Apostle, and endeavored to take away his life, by putting poison into the cup he used to drink from; but St. John having made the sign of the cross over the cup, a serpent was seen to issue from it, testifying both to the wickedness of his enemies, and to the divinity of Christ. This apostolic firmness in resisting the enemies of the Faith, made him the dread of the heretics of Asia; and hereby, he proved how justly he had received from Jesus the surname of Son of Thunder, a name which he shared with his Brother, James the Greater, the Apostle of Spain. The miracle we have just related has suggested the assigning to St. John, as one of his emblems, a cup with a serpent coming from it; and, in many countries, in Germany particularly, there is the custom, on the Feast of St. John, of blessing wine; and the prayer, used on the occasion, alludes to the miracle. In these same countries, there also prevails the custom of taking, at the end of meals, what is called St. John’s Cup, putting, as it were, under the Saint’s protection, the repast just taken.