A Thought for the Feast of St. John the Apostle
Deacon D. McManaman
Today is the feast of St. John, Apostle and evangelist. He is “the other” disciple mentioned in the gospel:
“Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first”.
What is interesting about the gospel reading is that although John runs ahead and gets to the tomb first, he does not enter, but allows Peter to enter first. An Irish philosopher of the 9th century, John Scotus Erigena, has an interesting interpretation of this passage. He interprets the tomb as representing sacred scripture, while Peter represents faith, and John represents contemplative understanding. Thus, according to the narrative, John waits for Peter to arrive at the tomb and allows him to enter first, and then John follows. The meaning is that in order to understand Scripture, faith must come first, and then understanding follows. St. Augustine often made the same point: “Believe in order to understand”. In other words, do not wait to understand before giving your assent of faith, rather, believe first, and understanding will follow in due time. So there is a risk involved, and understanding is the reward given to those who are willing to risk looking like fools by choosing to believe.
What did John find when he followed Peter into the tomb? He saw the linen wrappings. In other words, he saw that Christ had risen. He did not find a dead Christ, but an empty tomb. And those who enter into the mysteries of the Scriptures with faith, will come away with an experience of the risen Christ. They will know that Christ is risen. This knowledge is a genuine knowledge rooted in faith. We know through faith, that is, we have an interior sense, like a sensus divinitatis, that Christ is risen. We have looked for the dead Christ as an object to behold and we have not found him, because he isn’t dead. He is alive and he is behind us, looking at us, and we are aware of this. It’s very much like the experience of someone who says “I feel like someone is watching me”. That is the experience; an awareness that I am known.
To those without faith, Scripture is a dead letter. It’s just a historical text, but with faith, it is experienced as the word of the One who knows us, who is watching us from behind us, so to speak. And it is that gaze of his that guides our interpretation of Scripture. This is sort of like looking out at the objects before us which we can see because the sun that is behind us provides the light, making it possible to see the objects before us. But we cannot behold the sun directly. Wherever we turn, the sun is behind us, never in front of us as an object of our gaze, very much like the experience of the “I”. At this point, the sun is too bright for us to behold directly anyways, but one day we will be able to stare directly at the sun, so to speak. The more we grow in an awareness of his presence behind us, that interior and spiritual presence, the more we will understand the deeper meanings of Scripture.