Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Notes on St. John the Evangelist

Thoughts on St. John the Evangelist from my lecture last night to the Knights Templar* who celebrate St. John's Day every year:

All Masonic Lodges have the Holy Saints John as their patron saints (John the Baptist and John the Evangelist).

The feast day of St. John the Baptist was always celebrated by Masonic lodges. This likely evolved from the religious St John's Day festivals from the Middle Ages. In fact, the first public Masonic Grand Lodge ­of England ­ was born on St. John the Baptist’s day, June 24, in 1717 in London.  Thereafter, the Grand Lodge of England sponsored great annual celebrations of this day for many years. St John's the Baptist's Day in England was a summer kickoff festival of sorts, at least during the Middle Ages.  

Eventually the feast of St. John the Evangelist became important as many Lodges moved the beginning of their Masonic fiscal year from June 24 to December 27.  We can likely assume that the proximity of December 27 to the beginning of the yearly Gregorian calendar year made it desirable to do so.
The festival days were of central importance to early American Lodges as well during Colonial times.  Both feast days were almost always celebrated by most early Lodges, having their roots in England. Records like the diaries of prominent Masons like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin show that they always attended their Lodges respective observances of St. Johns Days.

In actual Church history, St John the Evangelist is a bit of an historical enigma. We know a lot about people like St. Paul or St. Peter, but John is a very interesting study in terms of Biblical studies and Christian history.

There are, of course, 5 books in the Christian New Testament attributed to a John, this is known in churchy Ivory Tower speak as Johannine literature. There is of course the Gospel of John, there are 3 letters by a John claiming to be the Disciple of Jesus, and there is the book of Revelation, which is the very last book in the Bible. Church Tradition has always attributed those 5 books to the same author, namely John the Apostle, the Disciple of Jesus, although bible scholars since at least the 2nd century have debated whether that is historically true in the modern sense what we mean by history.

Most Bible scholars nowadays would tend to say that John the Apostle is not the writer of all or even any of the books in the New Testament which we attribute to John. And that's a view by some scholars going all the way back to the Roman Empire. In fact, the ecumenical council that finally decided what books would be included for all time in what we call the New Testament had some knock down drag out fights over whether to include the gospel of John, the 2nd and 3rd letter of John, and to an extent Revelation in the bible at all.

I, personally, tend to think that John the Apostle wrote the gospel and the letters, at least parts of them because the language, syntax, theology, and images of those four books from the bible are very very similar. I don't think it is illogical to assume that those originated from the same source in some way, or at least John's theological successors rounded them out. 

The book of revelation I think is pretty apparent not to be written by John the Evangelist for a number of reasons: completely different writing style and somewhat different motifs and images of God and theology, and the doesn't even claim to be written by John the Apostle. It claims to only be written by a man named John on the island of Patmos. 

The Gospel of John begins:
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 into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."

If that sounds familiar to Masons in terms of Masonic ritual or the language used at Lodge meetings...it should. As products of the Enlightenment, a lot of language and motifs used in Masonic lodge meetings utilize the ideals of Light, Knowledge, and the Divine as inseparable parts of the whole of Creation. The language of John the Evangelist leans in that direction. 
Even in the Letters and to an extent the Book of Revelation, the writers John continually play on the themes of Word (which is another lecture in itself because the idea of the Divine Logos goes back into Greco-Roman philosophies for centuries before Christianity) and the Light. In fact, the dark imagery of the Book of Revelation that can be summed up with the idea that it is always darkest before the dawn.

The Book of Revelation I think gets a bum rap by many contemporary Christians who try to use it to predict the end of the world and all that, but its really a beautifully poetic ending to the bible when all the forces of darkness and ignorance are finally conquered and God recreates Eden and the New Jerusalem at the end of time. The light that was lost at the Fall of Adam is finally regained and made right in the ages of ages.

But some of the other themes that John writes about in the Gospel and the Letters speak of Truth and Love as links of the same chain.  The idea and practice of Brotherly Love and Fellowship is explored more thoroughly by the Evangelist than by any other New Testament writer.  “You love one another as I have loved you” is what Jesus says at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John.
The primary image of St. John the Evangelist is the image of an eagle. There are 4 gospels in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Each narrative is about the life of Jesus, but each presents Jesus in a different way, hence the traditional images that the Church for 1000s of years has attributed to represent each of the Gospels.
Mark is the King of Beasts, the Lion, as Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as the best of the best, the best debater, the best miracle worker, the King of Kings.

Matthew is a Human, because the Gospel of Matthew shows a side of Jesus that is human, he stresses his human relationships and ties to his people, Israel.

Luke is an Ox, sometimes with wings. Luke stresses the need for Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and the Ox was the most well know sacrificial Animal.

That brings me to this Eagle, which represents the Gospel of John. John the Evangelist is depicted as an Eagle possibly because an early legend held that the eagle would periodically renew its youth by flying near the sun and then plunging into a lake or fountain. One theory is that early Christians pounced on this image as a symbol for the Resurrection. In addition, since the eagle soars upward, it became a symbol for Christ's Ascension. because an eagle soars high above the clouds. 

Most particularly, John is the one gospel that is very clear that Jesus is Divine. The eagle soars at high altitudes, it is quick and sharp-sighted, the eagle is transcendent, in a state of peaceful enlightenment, much in the way Jesus is depicted in the Gospel of John.

I believe this might be why Masons adopted St. John the Evangelist because of that traditional image of John as an Eagle soaring to greater heights. Masons liked to build things like majestic Cathedrals, but Masons also claim to have the goal of making good men better, as all fraternal organizations should attempt to do. 

So, for this St. John's day, I leave you with that image of the Eagle, and ask you to reflect on what you can do in your life to soar up higher, to become a better person, to become closer to your creator as you continually seek more light and knowledge. 

May you be blessed this St. John's Day.

*The Knights Templar are part of the York Rite of Freemasonry. Since there is a lot of absolutely paranoid garbage about Masons floating around the internet, there is more information on the York Rite in an excellent video here (clip about 10 minutes). There are also some links here and here for general information about Masons that is accurate. In short, Masons do not worship Satan nor are they trying to take over the world. As a Masonic friend explained to me, "If we've been running the world for centuries, why do Masons still pay taxes?"

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