The Pope: John, Son of Zebedee

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We dedicate today’s meeting to recall another very important member of the apostolic college: John, son of Zebedee, and brother of James. His name, typically Hebrew, means “the Lord has given his grace.” He was mending the nets on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus called him together with his brother (cf. Matthew 4:21; Mark 1:19).

John is always part of the restricted group that Jesus took with him on certain occasions.

He is beside Peter and James when Jesus, in Capernaum, enters Peter’s house to cure his mother-in-law (cf. Mark 1:29); with the other two he follows the Master into the house of the chief of the synagogue, Jarius, whose daughter would be called back to life (cf. Mark 5:37); he follows him when he goes up to the mountain to be transfigured (cf. Mark 9:2); he is by his side on the Mount of Olives when before the imposing Temple of Jerusalem he delivers the discourse on the end of the city and of the world (cf. Mark 13:3); and, finally, he is close to him when in the Garden of Gethsemane he withdraws to pray to the Father before the Passion (cf. Mark 14:33). Shortly before Passover, when Jesus chose two disciples to prepare the room for the Supper, he entrusts this task to him and to Peter (cf. Luke 22:8).

This prominent position in the group of the Twelve makes comprehensible, in a certain sense, the initiative that his mother took one day: she approached Jesus to request that her two sons, John and James, might sit one at his right hand and one at his left in the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 20:20-21). As we know, Jesus replied posing a question in turn: he asked if they were prepared to drink the chalice that he himself was about to drink (cf. Matthew 20:28).

With these words, he wanted to open the eyes of the two disciples, introduce them to knowledge of the mystery of his person, sketch the future call to be his witnesses to the supreme test of blood. Shortly after, in fact, Jesus clarified that he had not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (cf. Matthew 20:28).

In the days following the Resurrection, we find the sons of Zebedee fishing together with Peter and others on a night without results. After the Risen One’s intervention, came the miraculous catch: “the disciple whom Jesus loved” would be the first to recognize the Lord and to point him out to Peter (cf. John 21:1-13).

Within the Church of Jerusalem, John occupied an important place in the leadership of the first group of Christians. Paul, in fact, places him among those he called the “columns” of that community (cf. Galatians 2:9).

Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, presents him next to Peter while they go to the Temple to pray (Acts 3:1-4,11) or when they appear before the Sanhedrin to witness their faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 4:13,19). Together with Peter he receives the invitation of the Church of Jerusalem to confirm those who accepted the Gospel in Samaria, praying over them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 8:14-15).

In particular, we must recall what he said, together with Peter, before the Sanhedrin, during the trial: “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). This frankness in confessing their own faith remains as an example and a warning for all of us so that we will be ready to declare with determination our unbreakable adherence to Christ, putting our faith before any human calculation or interest.

According to tradition, John is “the beloved disciple,” who in the fourth Gospel places his head on the Master’s breast during the Last Supper (cf. John 13:21), is found at the foot of the cross close to the Mother of Jesus (cf. John 19:25) and, finally, is witness both of the empty tomb as well as the presence of the Risen One (cf. John 20:2, 21:7).

We know that this identification today is disputed by experts, as some of them see in him the prototype of the disciple of Jesus. Leaving the exegetes to clarify the situation, we content ourselves with drawing an important lesson for our lives: the Lord wishes to make of each one of us a disciple who lives in personal friendship with him.

To do this, it is not enough to follow and listen to him exteriorly; it is also necessary to live with him and as him. This is only possible in the context of a relationship of great familiarity, penetrated by the warmth of total trust. It is what happens between friends: this is why Jesus said one day: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends … No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13,15).

In the apocryphal “Acts of John” the apostle, is not presented as founder of Churches, not even as guide of a constituted community, but as a constant itinerant, a communicator of the faith in the encounter with “souls capable of hoping and of being saved” (18:10, 23:8). He is impelled by the paradoxical desire to make the invisible seen. In fact, the Eastern Church calls him simply “the Theologian,” that is, the one who is able to speak in terms accessible to divine things, revealing an arcane access to God through adherence to Jesus.

Devotion to John the Apostle was affirmed first in the city of Ephesus where, according to an ancient tradition, he lived for a long time, dying at an extraordinarily advanced age, under the emperor Trajan. In Ephesus, emperor Justinian, in the 6th century, built a great basilica in his honor, of which there still remain impressive ruins.

Precisely in the East he enjoyed and enjoys great veneration. In the Byzantine icons he is represented as very old and in intense contemplation, with the attitude of one who invites to silence.

In fact, without proper recollection, it is not possible to approach the supreme mystery of God and his revelation. This explains why, years ago, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, whom Pope Paul VI embraced at a memorable meeting, affirmed: “John is at the origin of our loftiest spirituality. Like him, the ‘silent ones’ know that mysterious exchange of hearts, invoke the presence of John and their hearts are inflamed” (O. Clement, “Dialoghi con Atenagora,” Turin, 1972, p. 159).

May the Lord help us to place ourselves in the school of John to learn the great lesson of love so that we feel loved by Christ “to the end” (John 13:1) and spend our lives for him.

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~ by Rob on July 6, 2006.

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