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“Little Children, Love One Another”

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For reasons I can’t sufficiently explain, I find that the saints honored by the Church during the Christmas season somehow call my attention a little more than those celebrated at other times of the year. Perhaps it’s because these saints seem to be made more radiant in the glow of the Christmas celebration. Today the Church honors one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity: St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. John has long been a source of fascination for me: my younger brother shares his name, and because of that, when I was a small child, my ears always perked up at Mass whenever I heard the name “John” mentioned. (They still do.)

As an adult, I am even more fascinated by St. John the Evangelist—his Gospel and epistles contain some of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. Were I ever to share John’s fate and be banished to an island like Patmos, I would take his writings with me, for I feel certain that I could spend the rest of my life studying and contemplating his words and still not plumb their depths. His extraordinary Eucharistic theology continues to draw me “further up and further in” to the Paschal Mystery, and yet in his writings, I am also presented with the human face of Christ in all its beauty and mystery. John, held by tradition to be the “beloved disciple,” introduces me to the Word-made-flesh in a way that no other writer does, and teaches me to see myself as one who is also called to become a “beloved disciple.” Through his words, I encounter the Word of whom he speaks: “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have touched—we speak of the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1).

John knew the Incarnate Word of God. He knew Jesus as intimately as anyone ever could. This intimacy is evident throughout Scripture; Jesus frequently chose John to accompany him along with Peter and James for particularly significant moments in his ministry like the Transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. On the night of the Last Supper, John reclined next to Jesus, and even rested his head on the chest of his closest friend when Jesus spoke of a betrayer. John was in the Garden of Gethsemane, and of all the Apostles, John alone stood at the foot of the Cross when Jesus offered his very life as expiation for the sins of the world. And, as we hear in the Gospel reading for today’s feast, John was one of the first to see the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene, distraught with grief, did not understand what had happened; Peter went into the tomb first and saw the burial cloths. However, it is John of whom the Scripture says, “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed” (Jn 20:8). In this account, John is the first to realize and to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead.

In thinking about those who knew Jesus personally, I sometimes wonder how they were able to carry on after he ascended into heaven. How do you go on with your everyday life after such life-altering events? John provides an answer for me: “What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.” (1 Jn 1:3–4). For John, the only way to honor the Jesus he knew and loved was to make him known to as many people as humanly possible. As St. Augustine wrote:

“‘We proclaim to you what we have seen.’
Make sure that you grasp the meaning of these words. The disciples saw our Lord in the flesh, face to face; they heard the words he spoke, and in turn they proclaimed the message to us.
So we also have heard, although we have not seen.
Are we less favored than those who both saw and heard? If that were so, why should John add: ‘so that you too may have fellowship with us’? They saw, and we have not seen; yet we have fellowship with them, because we and they share the same faith.
And our fellowship is with God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. And we write this to you to make [our] joy complete’—complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity.” (Tract 1, 1.3: PL 35. 1978. 1980)

John continues his relationship with Jesus by making him known to others, by sharing Jesus’ message of love with everyone he encountered. Not much is known of John’s life after the early beginnings of the Church; however, tradition holds that, toward the end of his life, he summed up the entire message of Christ in one sentence and repeated it over and over: “Little children, love one another.”

We continue during these days of Christmas to celebrate the reality that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Let us take to heart the message of John, the beloved disciple, who tells us over and over again:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
In this is love:
not that we have loved God,
but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us,
we also must love one another.”
(1 Jn 4:7-11)

Featured Image: St. John the Evangelist Dictating the Gospel to Prochorus (17th c.);  Photo: Jim Forest; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.