When I first started paying attention to the liturgical calendar and I saw that the feast of St John is during ‘Christmas week’, I thought it was such a shame that it would get lost in all the hustle and bustle of the holidays. But the more I think about it, locating John’s feast here is quite an honor. When the Christmas season was overwhelmingly a liturgical season, placing John’s feast in the midst of the Christmas season made him part of those great festivities. (Recall that in antiquity and the early middle ages, January 1 was not New Years day!) Four feasts of biblical saints or events are placed between Christmas and Epiphany — St Stephan the Protomartyr, St John, feast of the Innocents, (in three successive days) and then the feast of the Holy Name/Circumcision. The week that begins with the Nativity is the second holiest week of the year. It is significant here that the beginning of John’s gospel is also the reading for the only Sunday in Christmas season.
The feast of John has been set for December 27 from the early days of the church. It was originally reserved for both John and his brother James the Greater, but soon it was for John alone. According to the Online Catholic Encyclopedia the only death date (assumption) ever given for John is September 26th. The feast of John and Paul on June 26 refer to two Gaullic men who were martyred under Julian the Apostate.
Bede wrote two homilies on St John. The first is as expected his homily for today, the feast of St John the Apostle and Evangelist. The second is the homily on the feast of “St Paul and St John (or St James)”. Although this feast is supposed to be on two Roman martyrs in the time of Julian, thanks to the lectionary choice (Matt 20:20-23) Bede really wrote about John and his brother James.
Bede on the Feast of St John (Homily 1.9; John 21:19-24)
Bede’s homily on John is focuses on the contrast between Peter and John, unusually between an active and contemplative life. Bede acknowledges that John was quite active as an Apostle, but sees him primarily as an example of the contemplative life. If Bede is reflecting a common belief about John, it may also explain why John was so honored at Lindisfarne and among the Anglo-Celtic party in Northumbria.
Bede reviews John’s activities in the Gospels, defends the tradition that John is the beloved disciple, and focuses on the tradition of his chastity.
“This disciple’s leaning upon the master’s breast was not only a sign of present love, but also of future mystery. Already at that time it was prefigured that the gospel which this same disciple was going to write would include the hidden mysteries of divine majesty more copiously and profoundly than the rest of the pages of sacred scripture…. Indeed we know that the rest of the evangelists spoke more about the Savior’s miracles and less about his divinity. John, however, wrote very little about [Christ's] human acts, and instead applied himself of explaining the hidden mysteries of his divine nature, unmistakably suggesting [by this] what great matters of heavenly teaching he had imbibed from Jesus’ breast, from which he was pouring forth for us.” (p. 88)
Bede then tackles what John means by saying that the beloved disciple will ‘remain until I come‘.
“[Christ's] saying about John, ‘I wish him to remain thus until I come,’ suggests the state of contemplative virtue, which is not to be ended through death, as the active life is, but after death is to be more perfectly completed with the coming of the Lord. Now active labor, when it comes to an end with death, will receive an eternal reward after death. For who gives bread to the hungry in that life where no one hungers? Who gives water to the thirsty where no one thirsts? Who buries the dead where it is the land of the living? Who carries out the rest of the works of mercy where no is found to be in need of mercy? And so no laborious action will be there, but only the everlasting fruit of past action. Contemplative happiness, however, which commences here, will be made perfect without end when the presence of the heavenly citizens and of the Lord himself will be seen, not through a mirror and in a dark manner as now, but face to face. Hence about this [life], Jesus properly said under the image of the disciple whom he loved and whom he made to lean on his breast, ‘I wish him to remain thus until I come‘. It is as if he were clearly saying, ‘I do not want the taste of contemplative delight, which I especially love in my saints, who are hoping in the protection of my wings, inebriated by the abundance of my house, and who have been made to drink from the torrent of my refreshment — I do not want this to be ended by dying, as [happens after] laborious action, but [I wish it] to be more sublimely perfected after death, when I will appear and lead them into the sight of my majesty.’
He then mentions that John waited so long to write his gospel after the death of Domitian because he was answering critics who questioned Jesus’ divinity before his incarnation in the Virgin Mary.
Feast of John and Paul (or James) (Homily 2.21; Matt 20:20-23)
This is the ‘sons of thunder’ episode. First Bede feels he must explain why either of them wanted to sit on Christ’s left hand in heaven because in the final separation, those on his left are damned. He also careful to explain Jesus’ deference to the Father and how Jesus speaks of a distinct separation between himself and the Father. Lastly he writes about John’s death:
“Concerning John, trustworthy histories tell that when he was aware that the day of his death was near, he called his disciples together at Ephesus. Declaring Christ by many proofs and signs, he let himself down into the place that had been hallowed out for his burial, and when he had made his prayer he was gathered to his fathers, as free from the sorrow of death as he was a stranger to the corruption of the flesh. How, then, is he said to have drunk from the Lord’s chalice, since it is sure that he did not depart this body by a death caused by suffering? Is it not because this chalice is drunk in two ways: one when death is inflicted by a persecutor is patiently endured, the other when the mind is held ready for suffering, when a life is led that is worthy of martyrdom?
John himself taught how he was prepared to drink of the chalice of death for the Lord’s sake when he bore prison and beating with the rest of the apostles with a joyful mind, as we read in their acts; when he was exiled to the island of Patmos on account of [his speaking] the word of God and on account of [his bearing] witness to Jesus; when, as Church history tells us, he was cast into a pot of boiling oil by the emperor Domitian: by the Lord’s favor he emerged from it as unscathed and clean as he had been chaste in mind and body — just as when he was in exile, by [the Lord's] favorable disposition, the more he seemed to be deprived of human solace, the more abundantly did he merit to be consoled by the company of citizens from on high. Hence he too is truly understood to have drunk the Lord’s chalice, along with his brother James who was killed by the sword, for one who underwent great [torments] for the sake of the truth showed how ready he was to accept even death, if it were offered to him.
But we too, dearly beloved brothers, even if we endure nothing of his sort… nevertheless we are capable of receiving the Savior’s chalice and obtaining the psalm of martyrdom if we take care to chastise our bodies and subdue them; if we accustom ourselves to supplicating the Lord in the spirit of humility and with a contrite heart, if we attempt to accept with a calm mind insults inflicted by our neighbors; if we rejoice in loving even those who hate us, who inflict injustice upon us, and in doing good to them and praying earnestly with the virtue of patience and also with the fruits of good works. If we live our lives in this way, and in according to the Apostle’s words, display our bodies as a living heavenly condenscension deign to see to it that we are rewarded with the same glory as those who have given their bodies up to death for the Lord’s sake. Just as their death is precious in the sight of the Lord, so will our lives become precious [in his sight], and once the chains of the flesh have been broken, we too will be worthy to enter into the courts of the city on high, and, together with the chorus of the blessed martyrs, to render our prayers of thanksgiving to our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with the Father in unity with the Holy Spirit, God throughout all the ages. Amen.
Homily 2.9, p. 218-219.
Bede the Venerable. Homilies on the Gospels. Two volumes. L. Martin and D. Hurst, trans. Kalamazoo,MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991.
- Book One: Advent to Lent
- Book Two: Lent to the Dedication of the Church.