We said in our previous reflection that Saint John Paul II in a profound way unified in himself the “Marian” holiness and the “Petrine” ministry of the Church. He bore within his heart and his life the interior, contemplative mystery of ineffable intimacy with God (the mystery of Mary), and also the external, apostolic role of shepherd and evangelist (the mystery of Peter and the Apostles). This union of the distinct yet complementary dimensions of the Church, however, is not something new, and it certainly does not apply only to John Paul II. Rather, it comes about wherever authentic holiness flowers. Whenever a human heart plunges into the inner mystery of the Church—the “hearth” of her reality as Bride and Body of Christ, which “unifies all the lines of contradiction”—this harmonization takes place.
This unification is revealed in the very events recounted by the Word of God itself: to the life of Christ and his Apostles. There we can discern the structure and mystery of the Church symbolized in its radiant unity, in the white-hot light that stands at the origin of her existence in this world. We have seen how Mary “bears” the entire universal Church within her own unique “Yes,” within the mystery of her communion with the Trinity. We can thus affirm that the “dimension” of the Church revealed in her is indeed the primary and all-enveloping dimension, in which the others find their place and which they serve. The dimension of the Church entrusted to Peter and the Apostles—and indeed to the other disciples whom Christ forms and sends out in his name—itself expresses this Marian mystery. Nonetheless, while this mystery applies to all, there is a particular Apostle who manifests to us in a particularly clear way the union of these two dimensions: it is the beloved disciple, John, the Apostle and Evangelist.
We spoke earlier of how Mary’s whole existence is cradled in the arms of perfect Love, and how her whole life springs forth from her awareness of being totally and forever loved by God. In other words, her life is contained within, and flows from, her abiding belovedness before God. Indeed, we saw that Mary’s very name is ultimately “beloved.” It is significant therefore, that, in his Gospel, John the Evangelist never gives his own name. He always simply refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as if this were his true identity…which, of course, it is. Through experiencing the tender love of Jesus, John’s eyes and heart are opened to the infinite love of the heavenly Father—and therefore to discovering his own unique identity within the gaze of God. He experiences, like Mary does, the all-enveloping and cradling arms of perfect Love, and he is able to entrust himself entirely to this Love.
This is the deep significance of those words describing his position at the Last Supper: “One of the disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the bosom of Jesus.” Through resting against the bosom of Christ, John is able to hear and feel the heartbeat of the Incarnate Son of God, and in him indeed to feel pulsating the entire Mystery of the Holy Trinity. In other words, he rests at the very Wellspring of Love, at the Origin of the undivided Light, before it is refracted in diverse colors. By his proximity to the heart of Christ, therefore, John lets himself be introduced into the central mystery of the Church (this mystery lived so intensely by Mary!); he lets himself be taken up into the intimate life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When Jesus offers himself in the Holy Eucharist, John is there, against his breast, welcoming this torrent of overflowing Love. When Jesus opens his Heart to his disciples and prays to the Father in their presence, asking that all who believe will be one with the very unity of the Trinity, John is there, intimately close to his Beloved. His intimacy with Christ allows him to sense, and to share in, the Son’s own intimacy with his Father. John is very explicit about this when he writes his Gospel, for two of the most central passages of the entire book are these: “No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18) and, “One of the disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the bosom of Jesus” (Jn 13:23). In a word, by reposing against the bosom of Jesus, the beloved disciple allows himself to be taken up to share in the Son’s own filial union with the Father, his resting in the Father’s bosom…to share in the Son’s own belovedness and his repose in the cradling arms of the Trinity’s perfect Love.
And this intimacy, this awareness of being cradled in the arms of Love—a Love which is undying, total, and constant, and which nothing can overcome—allows John to remain close to Christ even through the darkness and anguish of his Passion. He alone of all the Apostles stands at the foot of the Cross, at the side of Mary, present to the Crucified Jesus in love, obedience, and tender compassion. In this place, beholding the Son of God giving himself to “the very end” (Jn 13:1) out of love for humanity, John witnesses the complete revelation of Divine Love, unveiled in the naked and suffering body of Jesus Christ. And here, indeed, he finds himself sharing in the “Marian” heart of the Church—for, as the Church Fathers have said, the Church is born from the wounded side of the Redeemer just as Eve was born from the side of Adam in the beginning. Therefore the Cross is both a birth and, yes, a marriage, where the bridal Church is united totally to her divine Bridegroom on what has been called the “marriage-bed” of the Cross.
Here John stands, close to the Virgin Mary, witnessing the outpouring love of the heavenly Bridegroom, and the love of the Father which this gift reveals. While abiding in this place, further, he hears those awesome words which Christ addresses, first to Mary, and then to him: “Woman, behold your son… Behold, your mother…” He then writes that, after this, “the disciple took her into all that was his own” (Jn 19:26-27). He welcomes this woman, the Mother of Jesus who has become the Mother of the Church, into his own home, into the intimacy of his life. Through this, he is entrusted in a special way with “caring” for the mystery of the Church, as well as, indeed, letting himself be enfolded in the Church’s deep mystery, which touches him through the person of Mary. Finally, he is the first of the Apostles to recognize and believe in the Resurrection of Christ…this victory of perfect Love over all darkness, estrangement, and death.
He himself, racing Peter to the tomb on Easter morning, arrives first, but, in humble reverence for the office entrusted to Peter, he allows him to enter the tomb first. Yet it is the beloved disciple who first believes. He is also present on the lake when Peter invites the Apostles to join him in going fishing, and John recognizes the Lord from afar after the miraculous catch of fish. The burning ardor and contemplative love of his heart allows him to see and know Christ with profound clarity and deep intimacy. And yet this very seeing is not his own prerogative, a merely private seeing, but is open wide as a gift for the sake of all the Apostles, for the good of the entire Church.
Therefore, when Peter is in deep conversation with Jesus on the shore, asked by the Lord three times, “Do you love me?” and receiving in response the invitation, “Tend my sheep…Feed my lambs,” John is present, humbly following them. Yes, John knows his place, he knows what it means to abide at the heart of the Church in authentic holiness. He knows the intimacy that Christ has gifted him with—an intimacy destined for every individual person—an intimacy that he seeks to serve with his entire existence. And so he “follows” in the footsteps of Jesus and Peter, humbly placing his feet in the path that they mark out, while also offering the unrepeatable service of his own burning contemplative love and the gift of his life (cf. Jn 20 and 21).
Here, indeed, he is unifying the “Marian” and “Petrine” dimensions of the Church, in the dimension that he himself has experienced: the “Johannine” dimension. This is probably the meaning of Jesus’ mysterious words of response, when Peter turns around and sees John following them, and then asks: “What about this man, Lord?” Jesus replies, “What is it to you if I desire him to abide until I come? Follow me.” John makes clear that Jesus’ words do not mean that the beloved disciple himself will live until Christ’s second coming. What then do these words mean mean? They seems to mean that the “spirit” of the beloved disciple—this profound abiding in the contemplative heart of the Church in intimacy with the Trinity—will endure until the end of time.
Indeed, it is precisely this spirit of the “beloved disciple” which is offered to every one of us, who are each a beloved disciple of Christ. We are enfolded in the arms of perfect Love just as John, just as Mary, and we are invited to welcome this Love and to surrender to it totally. In this way we too will abide in this burning Hearth of Love at the center of the Church, sharing in and perpetuating this Mystery until the end of time.
– Can I relate to the beloved disciple’s experience of leaning against the bosom of Christ? Have I experienced the reality of being cradled within the arms of Love, and gazed upon with the loving eyes of God?
– Do I understand how the desire to “follow” in the footsteps of Peter is an act of love for the Church and a service of her unity?
– Do I see how my own most intimate relationship with God is also important for all of my brothers and sisters? Can I glimpse how I personally share in the “spirit” of contemplative love and intimacy that will “abide” in the Church until the end of time?