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Homily for St. John’s Day

By Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD

This is the message we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– that God is light.  Amen.

We usually restrict what we mean by light to what we can see with our eyes.  When I studied physics, I learned that light can be described as particles and as waves, somehow manifesting itself in both configurations: not either or, but both.  It seems to me when we say God is light, we have to remember that God already was before light was called into being so must also somehow be dark or unknown. Particles and waves. Light and dark. What we refer to as visible light takes up a very small portion of the electromagnetic radiation wavelength. This wavelength also includes gamma waves, x-rays, infrared waves, ultraviolet waves, radio and tv waves, long waves and even microwaves with the portion of visible light taking up a small portion in the middle.  What was declared to us in the first letter of John, what was heard, seen, looked at and touched, concerning the word of life, is such a small representation of the whole of the Word of Life, of Christ, of God.  What we’ve got to work with in our lives is what we take in through our senses, and also feel in our hearts and understand in our minds.

As we celebrate St. John in Eastertide, we are surrounded by images which symbolise this saint within this chapel and its environs.  We usually name John as “the other disciple” as mentioned in the gospel reading today, the one who had outrun Peter and reached the tomb first.  He didn’t immediately go in, but stopped, then went in after Peter.  When he entered, he saw and believed.  He saw an empty tomb which meant that death had been defeated and Christ was risen.

On my Profession cross is an eagle, one of the symbols which represents John. The eagle was one of 4 creatures around the throne of God seen in the vision of heaven as described in Ezekiel.   Ezekiel 1.10: “As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle.”  These images are taken up again in Revelation 4.7: “the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.” The gospel writers were each likened to one of these creatures who stand around the throne of God:  Mark, the lion, Luke the ox, Matthew the angelic being, and John the eagle. 

If we explore the meaning of symbols, it may help us realize that they direct us to the gospel of Christ.  In this exploration, we too can see and believe and come to understand that we are seeing only a very small portion of the whole of the love of God.  Why an eagle?  What is its meaning? Eagles soar high in the sky, they are swift in flight, they have very keen vision.  Once they spot their prey far below, they can dive at even great speed than they can fly to capture their prey in their strong talons.  Eagles build large nests and both parents work on building the nest or aerie which helps them bond.  Aeries are usually built high up in trees.  They both take care of their young feeding them.  For me, the strongest association of an eagle with St. John is in the keen vision of eagles.  John had to take a long hard look at the life, teaching, and work of Jesus in order to compose the gospel attributed to him.  He looked beyond the surface meaning of things to find that love was God’s meaning. The theme of God’s love runs throughout the Johannine gospel and the letters.

In the Lady Chapel there is a window depicting a tender moment after the crucifixion of Christ.  John takes Mary to his home.  From the cross, Jesus had given each to the other, to become a community bonded by love with Christ in common.  This seems to me to be what community life is about, we hear God’s call to join this Sisterhood, and become a community bound by love, not familial ties.  The window also speaks to me of hospitality, of love in action which supports one another in grief, loss, and life.

In the front lobby is the large icon showing an aged John in exile on the island of Patmos surrounded by scrolls of writings.  In an ecumenical gesture, both the Botham Road convent and a Romanian Orthodox monastery appear on the island of Patmos.  Just to be sure we understand, there is an eagle superimposed on a cross pattée, the symbol we use for the Sisterhood on our letterhead, which floats overtop St. John’s Convent.  John is shown seated looking up to see a vision of Christ while he dictates to his amanuensis. A passage from the first letter of John is shown along with two passages from the John’s gospel, including the passage we refer to as the motto of our Sisterhood, to “do whatever he tells you.” (John 2.5) The icon speaks of the years of contemplation and reflection on the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus the Christ, to write so deeply on love.  This too speaks to me of our Sisterhood with our monastic daily round of corporate prayer and daily spiritual duties as we soak ourselves in scripture, and in prayerful silence, listen for the leading of the Spirit.

At the end of the gospel according to St. John we read, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21.25) Like light, I suppose what we know about Christ, about John, about the love of God who created us, is just a very small part of the whole vision of God.  There is so much more yet to be discovered and for us to do to follow in the footsteps of Christ to bring about the reign of God. We’ll walk in the light of Christ and we come at last to the fullness of eternal life, which is the vision of heaven, the wholeness of God, walking with the vision of eagles to see and believe; putting love into action doing whatever God calls us to do; in our life in a community of love in this Sisterhood of St. John the Divine.  Amen.

Now for St. John with one accord,
Let praise and exultation
Ascend to Christ, the mighty Lord,
Who wrought for our salvation.
And let us seek his love,
All other gifts above;
So may the Apostle’s fame,
Through us who bear his name,
Sound forth the glad Evangel. (Sr. Rosemary Anne, SSJD, hymn from Songs for Celebration, v.1)