Another reminder of the very special place in Catholicism of Saint John from Crisis Magazine.
In class the other day, sensing that the attention span of my students was about to snap, I took immediate action, and suggested a Composition of Place to try and jump-start whatever lay hidden under the hood.
“Suppose you had just popped into the chapel to pray,” I said, “and reaching for your bible you discover that most of the New Testament had disappeared. Only the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel remained. Would that be enough to establish Christianity?”
Since timing is everything, I waited a moment or two, letting the loss of all but a few hundred words of Holy Writ sink in, then told them that, of course, those few words written by the Beloved Apostle himself, John the son of Zebedee, who reclined his head upon the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, would furnish quite enough evidence on which to found the faith and the hope and the love of Christianity.
There were several audible gasps (always a sign of life), so I went on, telling them that one could do worse than to begin with the one whom pious tradition speaks of as the clear-eyed eagle, who saw more deeply into the things of God than any man living. In a stirring tribute paid to the author of what St. Clement of Alexandria has called “the spiritual gospel,” the lofty movements of whose soul have lifted him far beyond the reach of mortal men, St. Augustine writes:
He soared beyond the flesh, soared beyond the earth which he trod, beyond the seas which he saw, beyond the air where birds fly; soared beyond the sun, beyond the moon and the stars, beyond all spirits which are unseen, beyond his own intelligence and the very reason of his thinking soul.
Having heaped such praise upon him, Augustine then wants to know what John saw. What discoveries awaited him on the far side? If the movement of our world tends, as the poet T.S. Eliot reminds us, “In appetency, on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future,” what enabled him to escape? What did John see?
Soaring beyond all these, beyond his very self, where did he reach, what did he see?
Augustine will answer his own question with the opening words of the Fourth Gospel, those absolutely horizon-shattering words on which everything we know and believe depends:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (1:1-2).
There is no end of instruction, in seems to me, in the fact that the Apostle John, in communicating his vision, will draw upon a few very simple and declarative words, his repeated use of which enables him to express what is finally inexpressible. Words like water, thirst, bread, hunger, light, life, love, grace, glory. All perfectly good, hardworking words, used over and over by a master wordsmith to ensure that the message he’d been commissioned to tell got through to the reader.
And what is that message of which the Fourth Gospel remains the purest expression of New Testament theology? To begin with, it is not like anything to be found in the three synoptic gospels, whose accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were written much earlier. The shape of John’s gospel, while in no way at variance with the disclosures of the other three, is configured to ends very different from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. His is a testimony concerning all that he had seen and heard, and the story he tells begins far beyond the horizons of this world. Indeed, one might describe the Fourth Gospel as a score of the most exultant music, animated by rhythms transcendent to the entire time/space continuum. Even as those rhythms are destined to resonate precisely from within the human setting. And the author appears not at all shy in letting us in on the score, which lifts us right off the page into realms of purest divinity. Augustine, in his moving panegyric, has certainly caught the tune, telling us that John, in the sheer sweep and sublimity of his music, “soars very high, mounting beyond the darkness of the earth and fixing his gaze on the light of truth.”