An icon of Saint John the Divine in the cave on Patmos listening to the voice that tells him to write
Saint John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel, also known as Saint John the Divine and as the beloved Disciple, is celebrated in the Calendar of the Church on today [27 December].
Saint John has a prominent place throughout the Gospels. He is:
● one of the three disciples at the Transfiguration,
● one of the disciples sent to prepare a place for the Last Supper,
● one of the three disciples present in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ is arrested,
● the only disciple present at the Crucifixion,
● the disciple to whom Christ entrusts his mother from the Cross,
● the first disciple to arrive at Christ’s tomb after the Resurrection,
● the disciple who first recognises Christ standing on the lake shore following the Resurrection.
Scenes from the life of Saint John the Evangelist in the chapel of Saint John’s College, Cambridge: on the left, he survives being thrown into boiling oil outside the Latin gate (ante portam Latinam); on the right, he survives drinking from a poisoned chalice.
After the Ascension, Saint John travels to Samaria and is thrown into prison with Saint Peter (Acts 4: 3). He also travels to Ephesus and is credited with founding the church there.
According to ancient tradition, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but he blessed the cup and the poison rose out of the cup in the form of a serpent. Saint John then drank the wine with no ill effect.
A chalice with a serpent signifying the powerless poison is one of his symbols, so that the image of Saint John with the poisoned chalice is still seen above the main gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (right, photograph: Patrick Comerford).
There is a custom in some places of blessing wine on this day and drinking a toast to the love of God and to the saint.
Tradition also holds that Emperor Domitian had Saint John beaten and thrown into a pot of boiling oil but that he emerged unscathed from each of his trials. The emperor then banished Saint John to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. He is also identified with the author of the three Johannine Epistles in the New Testament.
In spite of exile and attempts to kill him, Saint John lived to a great old age. By the late 2nd century, the tradition of the Church was saying that Saint John lived to old age in Ephesus.
The Basilica of Saint John the Theologian gave the later name of Aysoluk to the hill above the town of Selçuk, beside Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Jerome, in his commentary on Chapter 6 of the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that Saint John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s.
Saint John was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed.
Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”
One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”
He is said to have died in Ephesus when he was about 100 years old.
The site of Saint John’s tomb is marked by a marble plaque and four Byzantine pillars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Traditionally, Saint John is intimately associated with the Christmas celebration, and the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-14) is one of the traditional Gospel readings for Christmas Day.
For Saint John, there is no annunciation, no nativity, no crib in Bethlehem, no shepherds or wise men, no little stories to allow us to be sentimental and to muse. He is sharp, direct and gets to the point: “In the beginning …”
1 In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being 4 in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
As Saint John is sometimes called the Apostle of Love, his message is truly appropriate in the Christmas season. In art, Saint John the Evangelist is frequently represented as an Eagle. He is also shown with a chalice from which a serpent is rising in reference to the attempted poisoning by Domitian.
In the calendars of the Western Church, Saint John is commemorated on 27 December. However, he is celebrated on a wide variety of dates in the Eastern Church: 29 December (Armenians), 30 December (Copts), 7 May (Syrians), and 26 September (Greek Orthodox).
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church;
that, being enlightened by the teaching
of your blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life
through Jesus Christ your incarnate Son our Lord.
Exodus 33: 7-11a; Psalm 117; I John 1: 1-9; John 21: 19b-25.
Post Communion Prayer:
Grant, O Lord, we pray,
that the Word made flesh proclaimed by your apostle John
may ever abide and live within us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Tomorrow (28 December): The Holy Innocents.
Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.