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 favors 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 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 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 forever 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 ending 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 into 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 of 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.
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 in the Lauds of the Feast; but it must be acknowledged that she has never favored 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 Judgment? 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 the same as that of his feast, December 27.