Devotional: The Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
Morning Office Readings: Ps. 97, 98; Proverbs 8:22-30; John 13:20-35
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rossetti wrote that beautiful poem turned Christmas hymn, and there’s a setting of it in the 1982 Hymnal, but I first knew it from a version Shawn Colvin released in the late 90s. I was in high school then—my own baptism was nearly a decade away and I’d never even been in an Episcopal Church—but I remember listening to her sing these words and being deeply, deeply moved.
It’s still one of my favorite Christmas songs; it seems to get at a fullness that all the verses about mangers and shepherds and Bethlehem and a baby who doesn’t cry never seem to manage. There’s something about this hymn that reminds me of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast we celebrate today, right in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas. I think it’s that this hymn manages to point us more deeply not into history—not into just the moment of Christ’s birth long ago—but into mystery.
You see, St. John’s gospel isn’t quite like the others. John’s got a heart for poetry, for prayerful contemplation, for mystery. John sometimes leaves our heads swimming, but our hearts opened. In John’s gospel alone we find so many of the images that shape the Church’s way of experiencing Jesus—that shape our way of experiencing Jesus: the Word made flesh; the true light coming into the world; the lamb of God; the bread of life; the true vine; the Good Shepherd. In John’s gospel alone we find Jesus who turns water to wine at a wedding feast, Jesus who weeps at the tomb of his beloved friend Lazarus, Jesus who does these things for a sign that we might believe.
But St. John—the disciple whom Jesus loved—John grasps that faith, that belief, is not necessarily something we assent to, something we are convinced of, but something that reveals itself to us, something we glimpse. John doesn’t so much tell us about Jesus as lead us towards him. The Word made flesh, the Father’s love is something we experience; and that revelation comes to us—comes to be with us— first as a child. For God so loved the world… you remember whose gospel that comes from, right? John knew God’s mysterious love in Jesus and it transformed him. And John wants us to know the same; wants us to know we are called to the same. We see it again and again, in his gospel and in his letters:
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God (1 John 3:1).
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).
[Jesus said,] I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
Where have you known God’s Love in Jesus? What Love has been for you plea, gift, sign? I wonder which of John’s images– Word made flesh; the true light coming into the world; the lamb of God; the bread of life; the true vine; living water; the Good Shepherd; resurrection and life—I wonder which of these images helps reveal something of Christ’s love to you?
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light; that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.