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THURSDAY HOMILY: Feast of St. John Calls Us to Rest our Head on the Chest of Christ

By Deacon Keith Fournier
December 27th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

My favorite definition of a theologian is taken from the writings of a first century monk Evagrius of Pontus who said that a theologian is someone who "rests his head on the chest of Christ." The image calls to mind the beloved disciple, John, depicted as doing just that in early Christian art. Evagrius also said "one who prays is a theologian".  

ORLANDO, FL (Catholic Online) - I write from Florida where I am visiting my seriously ill mother. She is 82 years old and in the middle of one more health crisis. My oldest daughter gave our family a wonderful Christmas gift. She rented a place where all of us could stay. We drove or flew from all over the country to see "Nana" during Christmas.

My dear mother, bedridden and in the winter of her life, was surrounded by me, her son, my wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren this morning.  Few words were said; they were not necessary. Love was manifest. It was visible in the tears of her son, grandsons, great grandsons, granddaughters, great granddaughters, sons in law, daughters in law and the prayers and kisses of hope which she received.

On this Feast, the scriptures offered at Mass are dedicated to St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. They speak to us about our relationship with Jesus. St. John is rightly called the beloved disciple. Our first reading is a portion of his beautiful first letter to the early Church. (1 Jn. 1:1-4) These letters flow from the deep theological content so evident in his Gospel account.

The Gospel passage (Jn. 20:1a and 2-A) introduces us to the source of St. John's deep theology. He was a witness to the Resurrection. Not only did he walk with the Lord, rest his head on the chest of Christ during the last meal, stand at the second tree, the Cross on Golgotha's Hill next to the Mother of the Lord - but he rushed to the tomb and witnessed the implications of the triumph over death.

He is the disciple of a love which is stronger than death, the love of the Risen and glorified Jesus Christ.

John's Gospel was the last to be written. It reflects the deepening theological reflection of the early Church on the meaning of the conception, nativity, life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus, the Christ. That is why my very favorite Gospel of the numerous Christmas liturgies is the Gospel of the Mass of Christmas day taken from St. John. (John 1: 1-18)

My favorite definition of a theologian is taken from the writings of a first century monk Evagrius of Pontus who said that a theologian is someone who "rests his head on the chest of Christ." The image calls to mind the beloved disciple, John, depicted as doing just that in early Christian art. Evagrius also said "one who prays is a theologian".  

St. John was such a great theologian because he was in an intimate communion with Jesus. As someone who has pursued years of graduate theology, I am certainly not opposed to academic study. However, the heart of good theology is an ongoing encounter with the Risen Jesus. Without such an encounter I do not know how anyone can do theology at all. 

For John, that communion continued after the Resurrection because Jesus is still truly present, in His glorified life, to all those who live in the encounter which lies at the heart of being a Christian. The Risen Jesus comes to be with us in every Eucharist, in His Word, and in the intimate life of living prayer. John knew Jesus personally and lived in an intimate communion with the Lord; the kind that only comes through prayer.

We can do so as well. The choice is ours.  St John, the beloved disciple, shows us the way. He prayed. Do we?

Prayer is about living in an ongoing dialogue and intimate communion with God. God fashioned men and women for such a relationship. He created us for communion, a relational conversation of life with Him. However, at the heart of understanding what it means to be created in His Image is coming to understand the immense gift of human freedom - and what happened to our capacity to choose through sin. 

Our relationship with God was broken, separated and wounded through the first sin, the "original sin". That sin, like all sin since, is at root a misuse of human freedom infected by pride and self sufficiency. Our ability to exercise our freedom rightly by directing our capacity for free choice always toward the good, was impeded through the fall. Freedom was fractured. Only the splint of the Cross of Calvary can heal

The Good News is that through Jesus Christ, the way has been opened for an even fuller communion with God than our first parents had before the fall. Through the Incarnation, Saving life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ we are being re-created, re-fashioned and redeemed.

He comes to live in those who make a place for Him within the center of their lives. This "making a place" is the essence of Christian prayer. John made such a place for Jesus. He calls us to do the same.

The Lord wants us to freely choose to respond to His continual invitations to love. John shows us the way to do just that. We need a Savior.  We will only find our fulfillment as human persons by entering into the relationship that he had with Jesus.

This relationship is the meaning and purpose of our life. As we grow in faith through our participation in the life of grace, lived out in the Church, our capacity to respond to the Lord's loving invitation grows as well, through growing in the prayer of communion.

This kind of prayer is not about doing, but about being - in a loving communion with God. This kind of prayer is about falling in love with God. St. John was in love with God. He was, as the early Church fathers all were, a mystic.

Isaac of Ninevah was an early eighth century monk, Bishop and theologian. For centuries he was mostly revered in the Eastern Christian Church for his writings on prayer. In the last century the beauty of his insights on prayer are being embraced once again by both lungs, East and West, of the Church. He wrote these words in one of his many treatises on Prayer:

"When the Spirit dwells in a person, from the moment in which that person has become prayer, he never leaves him. For the Spirit himself never ceases to pray in him. Whether the person is asleep or awake, prayer never from then on departs from his soul. Whether he is eating or drinking or sleeping or whatever else he is doing, even in deepest sleep, the fragrance of prayer rises without effort in hid heart. Prayer never again deserts him."

"At every moment of his life, even when it appears to stop, it is secretly at work in him continuously, one of the Fathers, the bearers of Christ, says that prayer is the silence of the pure. For their thoughts are divine motions. The movements of the heart and the intellect that have been purified are the voices full of sweetness with which such people never cease to sing in secret to the hidden God."

The Christian revelation answers the existential questions that plague every human heart and trouble every generation.  Through His Incarnation, Saving Life, Death, and Resurrection, Jesus opens full communion with God for all men and women. He leads us out of the emptiness and despair that is the rotted fruit of narcissism, nihilism and materialism.

When we enter into the dialogue that is prayer, we can experience a progressive, dynamic and intimate relationship with God as He transforms us from within by grace. We can "become prayer" as we empty ourselves in order to be filled with Him.

Through prayer, daily life takes on new meaning. It becomes a classroom of communion. In that classroom we learn the truth about who we are - and who we are becoming - in Jesus. Through prayer we receive new glasses through which we see the true landscape of life. Through prayer darkness is dispelled and the path of progress is illuminated.

Through prayer we begin to understand why this communion seems so elusive at times; as we struggle with our own disordered appetites, and live in a manner at odds with the beauty and order of the creation within which we dwell only to find a new beginning whenever we confess our sin and return to our first love. Prayer opens us up to Revelation, expands our capacity to comprehend truth and equips us to change.

Through prayer we are drawn by Love into a deepening relationship with Jesus  whose loving embrace on the hill of Golgotha bridged heaven with earth; His relationship with His Father is opened now to us; the same Spirit that raised Him from the dead begins to give us new life as we are converted, transfigured and made new.

Through prayer, heavenly wisdom is planted in the field of our hearts and we experience a deepening communion with the Trinitarian God. We become, in the words of the Apostle Peter "partakers of the divine nature." (2 Peter 1:4) That participation will only be fully complete when we are with Him in the fullness of His embrace, in Resurrected Bodies in a New Heaven and a New earth, but it begins now, in the grace of this present moment. 

The beloved disciple John became prayer. He wrote in the letter he penned in his later years: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness" 1John 3:1-4

Today's Feast calls us to become prayer. It calls us to meet the same Risen Jesus who John knew - and knows - so well. This is not only a possibility, it is meant to become a reality as we become prayer.
Our daily life is a field of choice. We are capacitated to choose the more excellent way of love of which the great Apostle Paul wrote. (1 Cor. 13) Pondering the implications of the exercise of our human freedom should become a regular part of our life, as we learn to "examine our conscience", repent of our sin and become joyful penitents.

Prayer provides the environment for such recollection as it exposes the darkness and helps us surrender it to the light of Love, the life of the Living God dwelling within us. Yes, living within us. (Jn. 14:23)

Becoming prayer is possible for all Christians, no matter their state in life or vocation, because God holds nothing back from those whom He loves. This relationship of communion is initiated by Him. Our part is to respond. That response should flow from a heart that beats in surrendered love, in the process of being freed from the entanglements that weigh us down.

The God who is Love hungers for the communion of sons and daughters - and we hunger for communion with Him - because He made us this way. Nothing else will satisfy. The early Church Father Origen once wrote: "Every spiritual being is, by nature, a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God."

We were made in the "image" of God and are now being recreated into His likeness in Jesus Christ. As we "become prayer', that likeness begins to emerge. We give ourselves fully to the One who gave Himself to us and cry out with Jesus Christ "Abba Father." No longer alienated, we participate in the inner life of God who now dwells within us. We also dwell in Him through His Spirit. This dwelling is prayer. It is not about doing or getting but about being, becoming, receiving, giving, and loving.

A wonderful spiritual writer of our own time, Henri Nouwen, understood the call to live in God. He wrote these words in his work entitled Lifesigns:  "Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home by making his home in us he allows us to make our home in him.  By entering into the intimacy of our innermost self he offers us the opportunity to enter into his own intimacy with God.  By choosing us as his preferred dwelling place, he invites us to choose him as our preferred dwelling place." 

"This is the mystery of the incarnation.  Here we come to see what discipline in the spiritual life means.  It means a gradual process of coming home to where we belong and listening there to the voice which desires our attention.  Home is the place where that first love dwells and speaks gently to us.  Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God."

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