“The disciple whom Jesus loved was inclining against His breast…”
“At the foot of the Cross of Jesus were his Mother and the disciple whom he loved…”
There is a great paradox here, in the image of the beloved- disciple leaning against the breast of Christ. It reveals the very heart of the Christian life, the life of a disciple of the Lord—whose fundamental experience is precisely being “beloved.” The paradox is this: the most important “activity” that we can possibly offer to God and to our world is the passivity of acceptance. Indeed, this very passivity is not passive in the negative sense, but is rather a profound form of activity, of alertness and aliveness, in which we live the truth of our being as beloved children of God. Here we drink from the wellspring of love for which our world is so desperately thirsting.
Nonetheless, such an activity appears meaningless in the eyes of the world, and often in our own eyes. What good is it, when our brothers and sisters are aching with sorrow and pain, sitting in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, unaware of the love that God bears for them—what good is it for us to repose against the breast of Christ, “idle” in prayer and contemplation? What good is our joy when so many are sorrowful? But that is the paradox, the mystery: that this is precisely the most important thing.
Only in knowing the love of the Lord, only in being flooded and possessed by his joy, can we be vessels of his love and joy in our world. Indeed, it is most certainly true that compassion, in its deepest truth, is only possible if it is born from the womb of joy. It is itself an expression of joy, joy that yearns to give and share itself, that yearns to welcome the beloved into the intimacy of the same embrace that it knows. From the heart of the intimacy that he knows with his eternal Father, the Son bends down in compassion over the suffering world, he enters in love into the sorrow and suffering of every heart, precisely so that, through his nearness, his love, we may be drawn to share in his joy.
All of our activity in this world is born from this prior and enduring encounter, from this intimate abiding at the wellspring of God’s love, his joy, his compassion. Only from here does everything else draw its meaning, and to here it seeks unceasingly to return. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1). Only in knowing this can we begin to see the same mystery—the mystery of childhood, the mystery of God’s ineffable love—burning in the eyes of our brothers and sisters. Only in knowing this can we begin to see the traces of God’s love and compassion etched on the suffering countenance of our world, and cooperate with him in drawing this world to himself, in holding it close to the healing and transforming fire burning in his own merciful Heart.
There is therefore a profound connection between this moment, when the beloved disciple leans against the breast of Christ, and the moment when he stands at the foot of the Cross. Indeed, a cord is woven from this moment, through the intimate prayer of Jesus in chapter 17, through the agony of Christ in Gethsemane, the betrayal, the Passion and Death of the Lord, and unto the morning of the Resurrection. John is invited by Jesus to witness all of these things, yes, to participate in them interiorly and truly by his presence, his compassion, and his love. And he, of all the Apostles, does so—because he is the one who welcomes the love of Christ most deeply. They too will follow in time, as the Paschal Mystery of Christ begins to unfold in the mystical Body of the Church. But for now, it is John alone, with the Mother of Jesus, who walks the way of compassion to the end.
This is the direct result of his experience of Christ’s love, of his willingness to repose against the breast of Christ, near to his Sacred Heart. For what does he encounter when he draws near in this way? “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says. How true this is also for the beating of that most tender and most loving Heart; in its gentle pulsation one can hear, one can feel, the infinite love and compassion of the eternal Father, one can feel the surging of the Holy Spirit. In this intimate gesture the beloved disciple knows the mystery of the Son, who reposes eternally—and through every moment of his life—upon the bosom of the Father. Now John reposes upon Jesus just as Jesus reposes in the Father. He knows the Father in the Son, and in the Son he receives the love of the Father.
But this is not all, for in the gift of this awesome and ineffable love, this taste of the intimacy of the Most Holy Trinity, who is so perfect and complete that it needs nothing outside of itself—in this John is also granted to feel the thirst of the divine compassion for broken and suffering humanity. He feels the energy of divine love silently flooding out from the bosom of the Trinity to penetrate into our fallen world, to enfold it in itself, and to draw it back once again to God. And he abides here, close to Jesus, just as he will abide at the foot of the Cross: drinking in the love that pours out from him, and giving himself completely in response to this love. In this way he can channel this love, through the poverty of his own acceptance and surrender, more deeply into the thirsting hearts of his brothers and sisters who do not stand so near, or who, at least, do not yet know how close the Crucified Christ has truly come to them.
Here the acceptance of God’s love and reciprocal love for God are one, united, inseparable. They are simply the same reality. And they contain in themselves our share in the love and compassion of God for our brothers and sisters. For this is what Christ desires, what he thirst and asks for, that the beloved disciple draws near to him and receives his love, that he draws near and offers him his humble, simple, human presence as the Lord enters into the solitary way of his own suffering. “Stay awake with me and keep watch.” Yes, Jesus opens his undying joy in the love of the Father to those who draw near to him; indeed, he draws near to us to give us this gift. But he also opens up the sorrow within his Heart at the betrayal of men: “Lord, who is it” (Jn 13:25)? The whole world has betrayed the love of God, has lashed the Son of God with whips and scourges, has crowned him with thorns and mocked him, has pierced his hands and feet with nails and watched him die in anguish upon the Cross. Do we not realize that the suffering and evil so prevalent in our world, the divisions, the conflicts, the horrors of war, the poverty and injustice, are ultimately the result of human sin? Yes, the sin of each one of us has contributed to the Crucifixion of the Son of God, just as it continues to contribute to the continuation of his Passion in the hearts of humanity, in the weakest and the most vulnerable, in the evils present in society and in the world as a whole.
For we all stand—whether we know it and accept it or not—we all stand at the foot of the Cross of Christ; we all hear the invitation he expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Will we, too, allow ourselves to be a beloved disciple? It is most certainly true that, as our sins contribute to the evil and suffering of our world, so too our slightest acceptance of God’s love opens space for healing, joy, and reconciliation. Our smallest acts of love, fidelity, and generosity counterbalance the evil within the world, and with an efficacy infinitely more sure than the powers of darkness. Remember: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). Let us, therefore, be wholly and completely children of the light. We cannot even begin to imagine what a difference a single person totally surrendered to the love of God makes in our world. Let us therefore allow the Lord to make us into saints—what we are truly created to be, children of God who accept his love, and in the joy of being loved by him, become a living and perfect gift for God and for our brothers and sisters—for it is upon such that the destiny of the world hinges. It is in such that the Paschal Mystery of Christ is played out to the full and with complete freedom, this Mystery that continues its saving effects until the end of time.
Let us drink, therefore, from the opened Heart of Christ in the Sacrament of his Love. Let us plunge into the mystery of his Church in all the depth and beauty of her life, in the reality of her existence as the Bride of Christ. She, the holy and spotless Bride of the Lamb of God, will show us what it means to be a beloved disciple, to abide with Christ at every moment. She will enable us to do so, enfolding us in her tenderness and her love, as the Virgin Mary with John at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. “Behold, your Mother,” we hear from the lips of the Crucified Lord (19:27). And we feel her presence, her compassion, enfolding us, enfolding our aching and bleeding world. She draws us ever closer to her Son, her Spouse, and helps us to remain at his side—to welcome the torrent of Love pouring forth from the Fountain of his Compassion. In this way our hearts, too, become vessels of this Compassion for our thirsting world. In this way, we stand at the place where the thirst of God and the thirst of humanity meet, and give drink to one another, where God is unceasingly at work drawing all things back into the inmost heart of his own loving embrace, where, at last, we shall all be one in the joy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.