A sermon of St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas.
“Peter, turning about, saw that disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also leaned on His breast at the supper” (John xxi. 20). Of the twelve apostles, Holy Writ calls the Apostle John “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” To him is given the title of honour, “apostle of love and favourite disciple of the Lord.” His father was Zebedee, and his mother was Salome, who were closely related to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Saviour called him whilst he was busy on the shores of Lake Genesareth, mending his fishing net. John no sooner recognized the call of his Lord than with his brother James “they immediately, leaving their nets, followed him” (Matt. iv. 22). As an apostle, John became worthy of the love of his Lord to such a degree that Jesus was transfigured before Him, with Peter and James, and he was allowed to lean upon His breast at the last supper. Our Saviour exhibited a special love for him, but he also loved his Lord and Master with the entire love of his virginal heart. On account of his great love for Jesus, St. John is a model for our imitation. As St. John loved the Saviour, so ought we, dear Christians, to love our divine Saviour. But if we ask in what the love of St. John for Jesus consisted, the answer is that the love of St. John for Jesus was, a pure love, a faithful love, a fruitful, practical love.
We will take this threefold love of the holy Apostle as the subject for our consideration today; with the intention that we also may attain to a love like this for our divine Saviour.
The love of St. John for Jesus was pure love. When St. John was called to be an apostle, he was pure at heart and unblemished by the concupiscences of the world, he shone with virginal innocence and purity. Now he had, as an apostle, the great happiness of being able to remain in the immediate vicinity of the Saviour for three long years. His eyes beheld the Lord, his ears heard the words of the King of Virgins, and he went everywhere as disciple and friend with Him who was purity and virginity itself. Who can describe the happiness which St. John enjoyed in the company of his Lord and Master! He loved Jesus with the pure undivided love of his innocent heart, and he was loved in return by the Lord; indeed, of all the Apostles, he was the most beloved. The chief reason, however, why our Saviour loved him with such preference was on account of his purity. When pure, virginal souls associate with one another their innocence and purity is thereby increased. In what a high degree must not this have been the case with St. John, who for three years was permitted to associate with Jesus! He beheld in Jesus his God and his Saviour, the Beloved of his heart. The Saviour Himself acknowledged the tender love which John entertained for Him, for, in that solemn hour when He instituted the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar, He allowed him the privilege of taking the place of honour at His side, and of leaning upon His breast. Jesus acknowledged this pure love of St. John’s when He confided to him, and to him only, His beloved Virgin Mother as a sacred bequest, in those words full of meaning: John, behold thy mother: woman, behold thy son. It is, indeed, my dear Christians, a great bequest, an exalted privilege, an especial mark of distinction for John. And this privilege only became his on account of the pure love which united him with the Saviour. This is why it fell to him alone to protect and console the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God; for this reason it was, that she, the Mother of God, became his mother, and he was her son. The pure and chaste disciple of love should take the Virgin Mother to himself, his chaste eyes should keep guard over her, his chaste ears should hear her wishes, his pure hands should serve the Queen of Virgins.
Dear brethren! In view of this pure love of the Apostle John towards Jesus, we must ask ourselves: In what does our love towards Jesus consist? Is it as pure and undefiled as that of St. John’s? Or is our heart and our love divided? Do we love creatures more intimately than we do the Creator? God alone is the God of our hearts. He must then, also, be the only pure love of our hearts. And if we love a creature, we must love that creature for the love of God, and love our God and Saviour the most and above all things. Let us, then, so order our love that we may imitate St. John in his love for Jesus!
The love of St. John for Jesus was also a faithful love. He preserved his love in such a way that nothing, no danger, no fear could weaken it; in fine, he remained the disciple of love of his Lord, in the cross and passion, as on Mount Thabor, so also in the garden of Olives, and on Mount Calvary. Sorrowfully, in his love and faith, he followed his beloved Master to the Mount of Olives; there he was a witness of His bloody sweat, there he saw Him betrayed by Judas Iscariot and taken prisoner, and loaded with chains. Most of the Apostles fled with fear and trembling; only Peter and he, the faithful disciple of love, remained and kept their Master company. And when even Peter began to waver, and denied the Saviour, St. John alone remained faithful and steadfast. He was never confounded in his Lord, he never forsook the Friend of his soul, his love was stronger than death. For this reason he accompanied Jesus on the way of His passion, and stood at last, as the faithful loving friend, under the cross of his well-beloved Master. Who can enter into his feelings and picture to himself what he suffered in his noble heart, when he heard his beloved Lord nailed to the cross, and saw Him hanging for three long hours wounded and in agony? He endured all this and abided it in faithful love. My dear Christians, contemplate St. John in his love of Jesus! That is real, true love, which no trial could weaken, which no fear could break. That is the real, true love of a friend, which is not confounded in the beloved friend, but remains devoted to Him even when He is calumniated, despised, reviled and persecuted. Dear brethren! are we devoted to our Lord and Saviour in faithful love? We are Christians, we are Catholics; can we, though, say in all the stations and circumstances of our life, with truth: Jesus, for Thee I live; Jesus, for Thee I die; Jesus, I am Thine, in life and in death? Are we devoted to Jesus in faithful love, when suffering and trouble, trials and want, sickness and pain overtake us? And when it is a question of professing our holy faith, of announcing our Catholic convictions, even when we may thereby expect insult and ridicule, neglect, and even temporary disadvantage, did we stand by Jesus in faithful love, by His teachings, by His Holy Church, as St. John did? O, how many Christians do we find, unfortunately, who are wavering, even faithless, when it is a question of showing true love in the service of Jesus.
The love of the Holy Apostle John for Jesus was, finally, a fruitful, practical love. The sacred fire of divine love burned in his heart until his death, and his whole life was love and a manifestation and proof of love in the service of his Lord and Master. No sooner had the joyful news reached the Apostles that the Lord had risen from the grave, than he hastened with Peter to the grave, but John made greater haste than Peter, for he came sooner to the grave. The love of Jesus lent wings to his steps, he was burning with longing to convince himself that his beloved Master had risen.
After the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem, he began, like the other Apostles, to practice his apostolical teachings. Who could depict with what zeal St. John announced the joyful message of salvation, and how he sought to win souls to the holy faith; or with what heroic courage he endured ignominy and pain for the sake of Jesus? For Jesus and His holy Church and for the salvation of souls he was at all times untiringly active. It was Peter and John who were the first to be dragged before the council, and were scourged and imprisoned for having preached of the crucified and risen Saviour. They were forbidden to speak to the people about Jesus; he, however, answered with Peter in these heroic words: “We must obey God more than men.” And he rejoiced to suffer ignominy for the name of Jesus. See, my dear Christians, how St. John proved his love of Jesus, by word and act; how fruitful and practical it was. In the second persecution of the Christians, under the Emperor Domitian, St. John, then an old man of eighty-five years, was dragged to Rome; he was chaffed, scoffed at and derided, cruelly scourged, and thrown into seething oil before the “Latin gate”; finally, he was banished by the Emperor to the island of Patmos. But he bore all this ill-treatment and suffering in steadfast faithfulness, he bore it all for love of his divine Master. How zealous St. John always was, and how active to inflame the souls of men with love for God, with love for Jesus Christ, the Son of God! He is the most zealous preacher in praise of divine love, and he wishes to fill all men with this love. “Let us love God,” he cries out, “for He has first loved us,” and “God is love; he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. He who does not love, abides in death.” When he was an old man of nearly a hundred years, and not able to walk any longer, nor to preach any more, he had himself carried to the assembly of the faithful and exerted all his strength, as the Apostle of the love of Jesus, to exhort the faithful thus: “My little children, love one another. For this is the commandment of the Lord; he who does this does enough.”
“O Saint, whose mouth was consecrated to the love of God only,” says rightly a pious writer of St. John. “O precious heart, which was all love; O life, which only breathed love; O messenger of salvation, whose last words reminded us of the love of God and our neighbour!” May our love for God be fruitful, my dear Christians, by occupying itself with works of charity! Our love of God shows itself in an especial manner fruitful when we keep the commandments of God and the Church and when we fulfil faithfully the duties of our calling. For the Saviour says: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me.”
How perfect, my dear Christians, is the love which St. John exhibited and practiced towards Jesus, his divine Master. It is a pure love, it is a faithful love, it is a fruitful, practical love. And now certainly we understand why it is that Holy Scripture, in speaking of St. John, says with emphasis: “He is the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Tell me, dear Christians, could the holy Apostle have greater praise lavished upon him than this, that Jesus loved him? O that this praise might be our portion, too! May our divine Saviour love us also! And this happiness, dear Christians, will be granted to us, if we, after the example of St. John, love Jesus with a pure, faithful and practical love; in short, if we keep the commandments of God. For the same holy Apostle says: “By this, do we know that we are children of God, if we love God, and keep his commandments.”