By Father John Cush
St. John the Evangelist is a fascinating character. He was, tradition tells us, the youngest of the Apostles. The brother of James, the son of Zebedee the Fisherman, he was a “Son of Thunder,” who had his mother ask the Lord if he and his brother could sit one on his right and the other on his left.
John was the Beloved Disciple, so close to the Lord that he rests his head on the bosom of the Lord Jesus at the Last Supper. John is not only blessed to be part of the Apostolic Band, but is part of the “inner circle,” as it was, with the Lord Jesus (and with Peter and James) at crucial parts of his earthly life, like the Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is John to whom the Lord Jesus, as he hung dying on the cross, entrusts his Virgin Mother, Mary. Called to be an Evangelist, one who was divinely inspired to write, John is the author of the Fourth Gospel.
John was the only one of the Apostles who did not suffer martyrdom, as did the other 11. That was not for lack of trying on the part of his enemies. The stories go that in 92 AD, the Roman Emperor Domitian commanded that the Evangelist be boiled in oil, but even that torture could not kill him, as it was said that he still was preaching from within the caldron. The Church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina in Rome is thought to be the place of this attempted murder. In another instance, the chalice used by St. John was poisoned, but, miraculously, he was able to recognize this and knew not to drink from it.
Finally, in an attempt to stifle the preaching of this last remaining Apostle, in the year 97 AD, it is said that this Beloved Disciple was exiled to the island of Patmos. And even that did not stop him.
The Christian community moved there to be with the Apostle and to learn from his wisdom, the wisdom born from basking in the presence of the Eternal Word, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is on the isle of Patmos that John composed his Apocalypse, his Book of Revelation. Toward the end of his life, it is said that, at every celebration of the Eucharist, this last of the Apostles would deliver the same homily again and again. They say that this wizened man would stand up and look at his congregation and simply say: “My dear little children, let us love one another.”
Why would he do that? Why would John again and again reiterate this rather simple statement? I believe it is for one reason and one reason only – it’s easy to say and hard to do.
How many times do we encounter people who claim to be “people persons”? It’s easy to love “people,” isn’t it? As a generic concept, right? But it is downright hard to love individual people, those who annoy us, those who have hurt us, those who have ideas and opinions radically different than us. And yet, it is what we are called to do.
We cannot like everyone whom we encounter, and, sadly, no matter what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, not everyone will like us. But we are not called to “like one another.” We are called to love one another.
What does it mean to love another person? According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Communis, it means to have the constant, effective desire to do good to another. The goal of a true Christian friendship is, ultimately, to make God become the object of one’s friendship, what we call the virtue of charity.
Our Lord Jesus says these words in the Gospel we proclaim today from the 10th chapter of the Evangelist John:
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Recall the context in which the Lord says these powerful words – during the Last Supper. At the moment before his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, at the instant that he gives his True Body and Blood to us as a perpetual memorial in the Eucharist, it is then that he doesn’t just simply urge His apostles, but indeed commands them to love one another.
The Eucharist we share at Holy Mass is the exemplification of God’s love for us. As he opens his arms wide on the Cross in an embrace of love for us, giving us his broken body and drenching us in his blood, flowing from his glorious wounds, we eat and drink deeply of God’s charity. When we ourselves receive Holy Communion, we are called, in our own limited, earthly way, to share God’s love, his divine charity with all those whom we encounter.
When we receive Holy Communion, we receive God’s love. At Mass, we are being reminded again and again exactly what it is that John the Evangelist said on that island of Patmos – “My dear little children, let us love one another.”
There is a reason why the Church, in her wisdom, has placed the sign of peace at Mass before the reception of Holy Communion. We must be in charity with one another on the natural level, before we go to the table of the Lord’s sacrifice. We are not called to like everyone; we are called to love them, to will their affective good. At the Eucharist, we must put aside our differences and live in the sacrament of charity. “My dear little children, let us love one another.”
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 11: 1-18
John 13: 31-35
Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State and as a professor of Theology and Church History at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.