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St John the Evangelist and Apostle
(entered heaven around 100)
My guards have become especially repulsive recently – it requires all my willpower to remain civil when they accost me with their tales of social degradation seeping through the very fibers of what used to be “Christendom”. It’s hard to bear not only because they bait me so obnoxiously, but because, unfortunately, it’s so true. I can’t help thinking of the friends I have had, and the friends of friends, who were the victims of this degradation. I think of them especially at this time of year, the season “to be jolly”, yes indeed, but also the season with the most suicides. Many consider it a conundrum: how can Christmas season inspire the most suicides, isn’t it the “happiest time of the year”? Today’s saint decodes this dilemma.
John, along with Andrew, was the first of the future Apostles to follow Christ. (You can read about their first encounter in Chapter 1 of his Gospel – the most spiritual and intriguing of the four.) He was a fiery fellow, passionate. So much so that Jesus nicknamed him and his brother “the Sons of Thunder” (you can see the Lord smiling as he pronounced the ironic epithet). He was the only Apostle to recover from the shameful abandonment of Jesus in Gethsemane and stand courageously beneath the cross on Calvary. He sat next to the Lord at the Last Supper, where he leaned close to the Lord’s heart in intimate conversation. He was the youngest of the Apostles, and lived a full seventy years (so it seems) after our Lord’s Resurrection. He became St Peter’s closest companion at the beginning of their labors to spread the Kingdom, spent much of his time in Jerusalem and Palestine, and eventually relocated to Asia Minor (Turkey), where he continued building up the Church and combating heresies (this was when he composed his Gospel). There he was arrested and taken to Rome around the year 95, in the second general persecution. Upholding the faith, he was condemned to execution in a cauldron of boiling oil, but it did him no harm at all. The persecutors attributed the miracle to sorcery, and the Emperor exiled him to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the last chapter of the New Testament: the Book of Revelation or The Apocalypse. There is little agreement about when and where he wrote his three Epistles, also contained in the New Testament.
Unanimous agreement, however, is expressed about the central message of his canonical writings, and it is that message, in my opinion, which solves our riddle. It can be summed up in two little verses from his first Epistle: “Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent his Son to expiate our sins. My dear friends, if God loved us so much, we too should love one another.” (1 John 4:10-11) It also rings out with special eloquence in an even more famous verse from his Gospel: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
With that message we can crack our conundrum. At Christmas time, the general atmosphere powerfully (though implicitly) reminds us about the real meaning of life: to love and be loved. That is what we were created for, and that is what is at the heart of exchanging gifts, which is a way of symbolizing and exercising our love for others, and receiving their love for us. This brings joy, because when we do what we were created to do (love and be loved) life suddenly “clicks”. Unfortunately, today’s world has tried to redefine the meaning of life, putting pleasure in the place of love. And of course, that doesn’t work; it leaves the human heart forlorn, vitiated, barren, and it also propagates a host of social ills – divorce, abuse, infidelity, addictions, consumerism… Those people who are especially sensitive, and who have been especially damaged by this state of affairs, when Christmas confronts them with images and whiffs of what their life ought to be, are often driven to despair. And that explains why the Season to be Jolly, is also the season where suicide hotlines need to pay a lot of overtime.
Which gives me an idea. If I can GIVE something to my guards, maybe that will begin to break through their shell, and open them up to Christ’s love. But what can I give them? I have nothing. Wait, I do have – well, I have to go. Write soon.
Your loving uncle,