The Octave of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
THE Octave of the Beloved Disciple closes to-day: let us devoutly offer him our parting homage. We shall meet him again, during the year; for, on May 6, 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 to-day, and he has done too much on our behalf this Christmas for us to 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 to 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 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 labours in no wise interfered with the care which his own filial affection and the injunctions of our Saviour 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 candlestick 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 who had, when young, leaned his head upon the Breast of God, whose delights are to he with the children of men; who had stood near his Lord during the Crucifixion, when all the other Apostles kept away in fear; who had seen the soldiers 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 favourite 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 endeavoured to take away his life by putting poison into the cup from which he used to drink; 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 assigning to St John, as one of his emblems, a cup with a serpent coming from it; and in many countries, in Germany particularly, is a custom of blessing wine on the Feast of St John; and the prayer used on the occasion alludes to the miracle. In these same countries prevails also 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.
For brevity’s sake, we omit several other traditions regarding our holy Apostle, to which allusion is made in many of the Medieval Liturgical pieces which we have quoted: but we cannot refrain from saying a few words in reference to his Death.
The passage of the holy Gospel read on the Feast of St John has often been interpreted in the sense that the Beloved Disciple was never to die, although our Lord’s words are easily explained without putting such a meaning upon them. The Greek Church, as we have already seen in her Offices, professes her belief in St John’s exemption from death. It was also the opinion of several holy Doctors of the Church, and found its way into some of the Hymns of the Western Church. The Church of Rome seems to countenance it, by one of the Antiphons at Lauds of the Feast; but it must be acknowledged that she has never favoured this opinion, although she has not thought proper to condemn it. Moreover, the Tomb of St John once existed at Ephesus; we have early traditions regarding it, and miracles are related which were wrought by the miraculous oil which flowed for centuries from the Tomb.
Still it is strange that no mention has ever been made of any Translation of the Body of St John; no Church has ever boasted of its possessing it; and as to particular Relics of this Apostle, they are not only very rare, but a great deal of vagueness has always clung to them. At Rome, when a Relic of St John is asked for, the only one given is a small piece of the Tomb. With these facts before us, we are forced into the idea that there is something mysterious in this total ignorance with regard to the Body of a Saint so dear to the whole Church; whereas the Bodies of all the other Apostles have been the subject of most interesting and detailed accounts, and we can name the Churches which have possessed either the whole or a portion of their venerable remains. Has our Redeemer willed that the Body of his dear Disciple should be glorified before the Day of Judgement? Has he, in his own inscrutable designs, withdrawn it from the sight of man, as he did that of Moses? These are questions which will, perhaps, never be solved on this earth; but it is almost impossible not to acknowledge, as so many holy writers have done, that the mystery wherewith it has pleased our Lord to shroud the virginal Body of St John may be considered as an additional reward given to the Disciple whom he so tenderly loved during life, on account of his purity.
The Mass is given above, p. 255, the other prayers are given on pp. 415-417.
Let us listen, once more, to the sweet praises given to St John in the various Liturgies. And first, let us open the Roman Breviary, where we shall find the following Responsories:
℟. Iste est Joannes qui supra pectus Domini in cœna recubuit: * Beatus Apostolus, cui revelata sunt secreta cœlestia.
℣. Fluenta Evangelii de ipso sacro Dominici pectoris fonte potavit. * Beatus.
℟. Diligebat autem eum Jesus, quoniam specialis prærogativa castitatis ampliori dilectione fecerat dignum: * Quia virgo electus ab ipso, virgo in ævum permansit.
℣. In cruce denique moriturus, huic Matrem suam virginem virgini commendavit. * Quia.
℟. In illum diem suscipiam te servum meum, et ponam te sicut signaculum in conspectu meo: * Quoniam ego elegi te, dicit Dominus.
℣. Esto fidelis usque ad mortem, et dabo tibi coronam vitæ. * Quoniam.
This is John, who at the Supper reclined his head on the Lord’s Breast: * Blessed Apostle, unto whom the secrets of heaven were revealed.
℣. He drank in the streams of the Gospel from the sacred fount itself of our Lord’s Breast. * Blessed.
℟. Jesus loved him, for the special prerogative of his chastity made him worthy of a special love: * Because, being chosen by Christ as a virgin, he remained a virgin for ever.
℣. When at length he was about to die on the Cross, he commended his Virgin-Mother to this his virgin disciple. * Because.
℟. In that day I will take thee to be my Servant, and I will make thee as a signet in my sight: * For I have chosen thee, saith the Lord.
℣. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life. * For.
The Mozarabic Breviary, in the Office of St John the Evangelist, contains the following beautiful prayer:
Ineffabilia sunt, Domine, fiuenta uteri tui, quibus præ cæteris dilectus ille a te discipulus, recubans in sinu tuo, satiari promeruit: quæsumus ergo, ut mortificatis membris nostris, tuis semper mereamur inhærere vestigiis: ut intercessu hujus sancti Joannis, ita nos ignis amoris tui concremet et absumat, qualiter beneplacitum nos tibi in toto holocaustum efficiat.
Ineffable, O Lord, are the streams of thy Heart, wherewith the Disciple whom thou lovedst above the rest deserved to be filled, when leaning on thy Breast: we therefore humbly beseech thee that, our senses being mortified, we may deserve to walk at all times in thy footsteps: that thus, by the intercession of this thy holy disciple John, the fire of thy love may so burn and consume us, as to make us in all things a holocaust well-pleasing unto thee.
We find also this other prayer in the Missal of the same Gothic Liturgy.
Vide, vide, Deus, quibus gravati delictis obruimur; qualiterque nobis ipsi quotidie efficimur causa veneni et pœna supplicii, dum cum quotidiano carnis nostræ veneno polluimur, et de reparatione melioris vitæ nullo modo cogitamus. Sed quia certuni est quod hoc videas, qui semper es clemens; et ideo per confessionem nos ad te redituros exspectas, ideo suggerimus ut Apostolo tuo Joanne intercedente, qui invocato nomine tuo lethale ebibens virus, non solum ipse evasit, sed etiam alios ex eodem extinctos populo suscitavit. Procul a nobis efficias et incentivam carnis nostræ libidinem, et virus persuasionis hostis antiqui, ut fide te colentes, sicut Joannem Apostolum non nocuit oblatum venenum, ita nos non noceat latentium vitiorum virus occultum.
See, see, O God, the sins whereby we are weighed down, and how we daily create to ourselves the poison that destroys and the pain that punishes, inasmuch as we are each day infected with the poison of the deeds of our flesh, yet give we no thought to the amending our lives. But whereas faith teaches us that thou seest our sins, and because thou art merciful, thou awaitest us that we return to thee by humble confession; therefore do we beg the intercession of John thine Apostle, who having drunk a deadly poison, not only, by the invocation of thy name, escaped hurt himself, but raised them to life who had been poisoned by that same cup. By this his intercession, drive far from us both the lustful flames of our own flesh, and the poison of the old enemy’s suggestions; that worshipping thee by our faith, we may be guarded against the hidden poison of latent passions, as the poison offered to the Apostle John left him uninjured.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.