Jesus’ Favorite…Er, Beloved Disciple

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The next apostle up on our list is St. John, the brother of last week’s saint, St. James the Greater. St. John is an Evangelist, literally from Greek a “giver of good news”. Multiple early Church Fathers support the claim that St. John was the author of the 4th gospel, the Gospel of John (hence the name?), written before 95 AD.

John’s gospel is the same story as the others, obviously, but goes about recounting it in a very different way. It is a much more reflective, symbolic, and theological approach. In the eastern Churches, this gives him the name St. John the Theologian. In some ways, he seems to presuppose things already in the other gospels. For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus never says the words “This is my body” or “This is my blood.” Instead, John presupposes that and focuses on the meaning of the Eucharist – service (washing of the feet) and sacrifice (blood flowing from Jesus’ side on the Cross).

Anyway, in his own gospel, John refers to himself as the “beloved disciple”. He defines himself not by his own achievements, but by his relationship to Jesus. He is one of the core group of disciples, but had a special place in Jesus’ heart. We hear that he rested his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, and that he was the only apostle not to abandon Jesus. With Peter, he is the first to receive news of the Resurrection and go to the tomb, and we hear that “he saw, and believed.”

One of the greatest privileges that St. John was entrusted with was the care of Jesus’ mother – “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” The tradition is that he cared for her in Jerusalem, and later in Ephesus in present-day Turkey. In fact, an ancient house in Ephesus is still commemorated as the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

You might recall from last week that it was John, along with his brother James, who had inquired about being seated at Jesus’ side, and that he would indeed drink the cup of suffering. John wasn’t martyred like his brother, but he experienced suffering in a different way. He supervised and governed the Church in Asia Minor (Turkey), and when persecutions broke out under the Emperor Domitian, was taken to Rome and boiled in oil! Or at least they tried, to boil him in oil, but nothing happened! He walked out of it, and the legend says that all the spectators in the Coliseum who witnessed the miracle were instantly converted. I suppose I would be too if I just saw some guy walk out of a vat of boiling oil!

Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos
Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos

St. John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation, before returning to Ephesus, where his earthly life came to an end. For 900 years, the Basilica of St. John stood over his tomb, until it was destroyed by invading armies.

St. John was indeed the “beloved disciple,” and it is said that his parishioners grew tired of his sermons, because they relentlessly emphasized the need to “love one another.” But truly, we can see the courage and zeal that comes from a heart that knows God’s love for itself and gives entirely out of love for others. Do we know that love for ourselves? How do we live it? May St. John inspire us and pray for us, so that we too can claim our identity as beloved disciples!

St. James the Awesome (or the Greater, whatever…)

Statue of St. James the Greater at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome
Statue of St. James the Greater at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome

As we move on to the next of our apostles, we focus on St. James the Greater. He is usually called “the Greater” to distinguish him from the other St. James among the apostles. He was the son of Zebedee and the brother of St. John, and in fact, they were all together on the seashore when Jesus called James and John to follow him. St. James was part of the core group of the apostles, along with St. Peter and St. John, and was one of the few chosen to witness the Transfiguration.

The most noteworthy occasion where St. James finds his name in the Gospels was when he had the…ahem… *boldness* to request that he and his brother would stand at Jesus’ left and right in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus asked them, “Can you drink the chalice that I drink?” Now remember, this is the same chalice that Jesus asked would pass from him at Gethsemane before the Passion – the chalice of suffering. Confidently, James said he could! What a great and zealous faith! And of course, Jesus assured him that he would indeed share in that chalice.

Moving forward, according to tradition, St. James travelled to Spain to preach the Gospel after the Ascension. He may have been having a pretty tough time doing so (maybe he didn’t pay attention to his Spanish classes, although I guess Spanish didn’t exist yet). Near present-day Zaragoza, he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a pillar where she encouraged him and assured him that his efforts would not be in vain. Inspired, James returned to Judea, which speaking of that chalice…

James would drink the chalice of suffering, as he was the first of the apostles to share it and the glory that Christ promised along with it. The Acts of the Apostles relates that Herod Agrippa, the nephew of the Herod who had questioned Jesus, “killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2)

Stjacquescompostelle1Supposedly, after his martyrdom, his body was claimed by his loving followers and returned to Spain, where he was buried at the site of the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For over 1000 years, pilgrims have travelled to the cathedral to venerate St. James’ relics via the Way of St. James. There are several points of origin on this pilgrimage, but the Way of St. James is a minimum of 100 km, and has become one of the greatest Christian pilgrimages. In fact, the 2010 World Cup winners from Spain dedicated their win to St. James, and several of the players made the Way of St. James in gratitude!

Ultimately, I think the example of St. James invites us to think about how willing we are to drink the chalice of suffering offered to us by Christ. The Way of St. James can be an analogy for us in that sense. The journey of discipleship is long and hard, and we have to be sure we prepare ourselves well during this life. But after the suffering of the journey, we arrive at the fullness of joy at the end of the pilgrimage. For the Way of St. James, it’s the glorious cathedral and relics; for our pilgrimage of faith, it is the joy of heaven. Are we willing to drink the chalice of suffering in order to attain the overflowing chalice of joy?

(By the way, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is known for it’s GIGANTIC incense thurible.  Check out the video below.  I asked our pastor if we could get one, but it might be out of our budget…for now…)

That One Guy Who Was St. Peter’s Brother

Statue of St. Andrew St. Peter's Basilica Vatican City
Statue of St. Andrew
St. Peter’s Basilica
Vatican City

So what do we know about St. Andrew? Umm…I guess he’s patron saint of Scotland, and therefore patron saint of golf? Hence, we get the famous St. Andrew’s Golf Course. But really, what else?

The point is that there’s not much we know about him. We do know that he was the brother of Simon Peter. I guess he’s kind of like Shelley Duncan, the brother of former Cardinal outfielder Chris Duncan. Shelley was a great player in his own right for the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians (ok, maybe not a “great” player), but to St. Louisans, he will forever be known as Chris Duncan’s brother and Dave Duncan’s son.

But St. Andrew was actually pretty important among the apostles. There are two versions of his call. The first, from the Gospel of Matthew, is that he was fishing with his brother Simon Peter when Jesus called them to be fishers of men. In the Gospel of John, however, he was a disciple of St. John the Baptist, and when St. John pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” St. Andrew knew that Jesus was worth following. He asked Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus responded in that beautiful and teasing invitation, “Come and see.”

What about after the Ascension? Now we’re getting into some fuzzy area. Various church historians like Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea tell us that St. Andrew preached his way to north of the Black Sea, through modern-day Russia and Ukraine. He then went across to Byzantium, modern-day Constantinople/Istanbul, and over to Macedonia and Greece.

One common point of agreement is that St. Andrew was crucified in Patras, Greece. The non-canonical Acts of Andrew tells us that he was tied, not nailed to the cross, and remained there for two days, preaching and converting those who listened to him, until he finally gave up his spirit. Legends have it that St. Andrew asked to be crucified in a different way than Jesus out of respect, and was tied to an X-shaped cross, which to this day, is called a St. Andrew Cross. In 1964, in an outreach to our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters, Pope Paul VI returned the relics of St. Andrew from the Vatican to the Basilica of St. Andrew in Patras, Greece, where we can still see them today.

So back to the original question, what do we know about St. Andrew? Not much at all. The Gospels give us little about his holiness. But he was an apostle, and that is enough. He was called personally to “come and see”, and then to proclaim the Good News, sharing in Jesus’ life and ultimately, his death. Holiness today is no different. It’s a call to be a follower, to “come and see.” Let’s pray for the intercession of St. Andrew today, that we would respond to that invitation, and then spread that message of hope with our lives.

“Domine, Quo Vadis?”

"Domine Quo Vadis" By Annibale Carracci
“Domine Quo Vadis”
By Annibale Carracci

Who better to start our discussion on the saints than with Peter, the first pope and Prince of the Apostles? Many of us are probably familiar with his life from the Gospels, but how many of us are familiar with some of the wider traditions of his life?

Conveniently, we just heard a lot about St. Peter in the Sunday Gospels the past few weeks. Originally, he was “Simon”, until Jesus changes his name, which is actually a pretty big deal! In the Bible, only God has the authority to change names – like Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and so on. So Jesus tells Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus is pretty witty, actually, because Petrus (Latin) and Petros (Greek) actually mean “rock”! As the first pope, Peter really is the rock – the unifier on which Jesus lays the stones of the Church. He is usually pictured with keys, signifying that binding and loosing power that Jesus with the Church.

Now one of my pet peeves is when people, especially priests, make fun of Peter. We always joke that he was impulsive and dumb, never seeming to get what Jesus was saying. And those things are true, I guess. But St. Peter is an incredibly brave example of faith! After the Resurrection, he preached in Jerusalem for a long time, and was the first apostle to perform miracles in Jesus’ name. He then journeyed to some of the major pagan cities of the age including Antioch and Corinth, and then of course, Rome.

We know that St. Peter died in Rome in 64 AD under the Emperor Nero, and we know that he was martyred for his faith, as all the early Fathers of the Church attest. The legend is that he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ, and so he asked to be crucified upside down. It might be easy to think that Peter’s story is all legend, but excavations under the present day St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill have identified his ancient tomb, which was venerated even from the earliest days of the Church.

One of the most touching stories of Peter coming from our wider tradition is from the non-canonical Acts of Peter. It isn’t an official book of the Bible or anything, but it is an interesting and moving story. In this story, Peter was fleeing crucifixion in Rome, and as he was on his way out of the city, probably listening to his iPod or something to pass the time, who does he come across but Jesus! The Risen Christ was carrying a large cross and heading the other way towards the city. And Peter, shocked, asked that famous question, “Quo vadis?” “Where are you going?” Jesus smiled and answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Moved by the Lord’s words, Peter gained the courage to bravely continue his ministry in Rome and was eventually martyred.

Even after the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave us behind. Like Peter, he has commissioned us to do great things, but also like Peter, we are weak. But Christ assures us that we don’t offer ourselves alone. We walk with Christ, we offer ourselves with Christ, and we suffer with Christ. He is with us every step of the way, especially the tough steps. So take courage from the example of St. Peter, and let’s all strive to build on the firm foundations that he and his successors are for the Church!

St. (Your Name Here), Pray For Us!

Have you ever thought about what you’d be the patron saint of? Maybe patron saint of power naps? The patron saint of drinking way too much coffee in the morning? The patron saint of ace-ing Algebra II class? Don’t laugh, because it’s an important question to consider!

Tapestries of the Communion of Saints in the  Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Los Angeles, California
Tapestries of the Communion of Saints in the
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
Los Angeles, California

Saints are pretty commonplace in the Church, what with feast days, patron saints, and litanies of the saints, and all that. Interestingly, one of the oldest “litanies” or lists of the saints that we have comes from the first of the four main Eucharistic Prayers we pray regularly at Mass. Just as a little background, Eucharistic Prayer I (or the Roman Canon) is the Big Kahuna of the Mass – it’s the oldest, the longest, and the most jam-packed with theology. In fact, it is so old that even St. Ambrose (d. 397) knew of it and quoted extensively from it.

In the Roman Canon, we pray, “Graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy apostles and martyrs,” and then go on to mention a lengthy list of important saints. The first few are pretty normal saints that we know from Sacred Scripture like John the Baptist and Stephen. But as we move down the list, we hear about people like Ignatius, Alexander, and Marcellinus.

What the heck? How did they get in there? Well, these names may not seem that familiar – to us – but in the days of the early Church, when this prayer was first used, these saints and martyrs were people they might very well have been familiar with, maybe even part of their local community! These were people they had sat listening to, people they had followed, people they had seen giving witness to their faith, even to their deaths in the arenas like Perpetua and Felicity. These were individuals who had been personal examples of holiness that inspired their communities to grow closer to Christ.

So let’s go back to what we started with – are you trying to be a saint? Are you trying to be an inspiring example of faith to others? “Ha! Yeah right, Father! Being a saint is just for really holy people!” Well, strange as it might seem, that’s your call. Before being a husband or wife or priest or soccer mom or snake charmer or whatever, we are called to be saints. Sure, you may not be officially recognized and canonized by the Church, or called “St. _______ of Valley Park” (especially because St. _____ of St. Louis sounds a little redundant), but you are called to be holy, and to be an example for others.

Saints aren’t just those we remember once a year, or statues we put votive candles in front of when we need them. There are living, breathing, and aspiring saints among us now in our parish, our neighborhood, and even our households. As Pope Francis mentioned recently, these are simple saints, good people who may not have visible heroism, but in whose “everyday goodness, we see the truth of faith.”

Be that example of holiness for your friends, relatives, parents, and children. Don’t settle for mediocrity – embrace the call to heroic virtue!