As I was thinking about what to write for this contribution to the Register, I realized that I did not finish my series on appreciating the Gospels and it’s high time that I get back to it, especially as we are beginning this Lenten season.
On each level of formation as a seminarian, I would pray with a particular Gospel, and with each level (high school, college and major seminary), a different Gospel would become my favorite. Perhaps this is a result of being taught to pray with Scripture at an early age, but I think that each Gospel, with its individual portrayal of the Lord Jesus, attracted me at different points in my life.
When I was in the high school seminary, I loved Luke, with all its stories and history. When I was in the college seminary, I adored Mark with all its blunt simplicity. When I was in the major seminary, I could not get enough of John’s Gospel, to the point of writing my tesina, my thesis paper, on John 11:1-44. When I was a younger priest, I began to pray with the rich, rabbinical Jesus and the sense of connectedness to the past. Now, serving here in Rome as a seminary formator and professor, all of the Gospels appeal to me more, but recently, I have begun to pray most explicitly again with John’s Gospel.
Let’s go through this last of the Gospels to be written, shall we? This is the most sophisticated of all the Gospels — linguistically, philosophically and theologically. Like Mark’s Gospel, it has no infancy narrative; there is no story of the birth of Christ. Instead, it is set up completely, totally different from all of the other Gospels.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are what we call Synoptic Gospels. The word “synoptic” is Greek, meaning “to look together,” and, indeed, that is the case. These first three Gospels are more or less following a similar structure. John’s Gospel is an entirely different creature. This last of the Gospels follows an entirely different structure.
It starts not with a genealogy, like that of Matthew and Luke, but with a beautiful, poetic prologue, set in the vastness of all eternity. So powerful is this Gospel that, for centuries, the Church has used this prologue as the “Last Gospel” of the Mass when we celebrate what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Let’s listen again to the words of this prologue:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be
through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
I want to come back to this Last Gospel in next week’s article on the value of praying with it after Mass privately. But, as they say, that’s for another week!
What a difference, is it not, from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, which is so blunt and direct. Why is this one so different? Not only was it, like all of the others, coming from a different time period — and remember, there was an additional 30-35 years to reflect on this Gospel, as compared to Mark’s — not only was it written for a different audience than the others, but it reflects one of the first times that our Church uses the language and style of a different culture. It is Hellenic, or Greek, in its style, and in its philosophy that is expressed.
After we encounter, in the farthermost corner of all eternity, the mystery that is the Holy Trinity, we turn to the figure of John the Baptist — the last and the greatest of the prophets, the model of humility who knows who he is and what he’s intended to be and to do. John knows, as great as he is, that he is the Messiah. His job is to simply be the one who points to the one who is coming after him. John is so important for our lives as Christians, and I will also come back in a future article to this friend of the Bridegroom as a model for all priests.
The Gospel is traditionally broken into two parts: Chapters 1-11 compose the Book of Signs. Chapters 12-21 are called the Book of Glory.
I particularly love praying with the Book of Signs. In John’s Gospel, we have a very particular phrase, as you will of course remember, for what are called miracles in the other Gospels. In John, we call them “signs.” For the sake of simplicity of explanation, all I will say is that each sign, each act that Jesus performs in this first part of John’s Gospels, gets bigger and bigger, each one pointing to the reality that is right in front of the people of Jesus’ day — namely, that this Man is the Messiah.
From the Wedding Feast at Cana, to the various healings performed by the Lord, to the crucial moment that is the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of this Gospel, where Jesus loses so many of his followers, those who simply could not accept the teaching and message that he came to bring, it all culminates in the 11th chapter of this Gospel — the raising of Lazarus. It is in this chapter that we see the Lord Jesus at his most human (he weeps deeply for his friend, Lazarus) and the most divine (until, of course, we read of his own resurrection) raising Lazarus, who was three days dead to life. Again, I will come back to this Gospel in a future article.
The Book of Glory gives us the story of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery — his passion, death and resurrection, beginning with the Last Supper, with John emphasizing the washing of the feet. (Remember, John has that Bread of Life discourse found in Chapter 6, where he gives us a rich, beautiful theology of the Holy Eucharist.)
John 20 gives us the simple, clear reason why this Gospel was written: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” This is what this beautiful Gospel is all about!
The last chapter, John 21 serves an epilogue to the Gospel and, in a simple sentence, Saint John describes how much I appreciate this Gospel: “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.”