One for the Road – What I said for Saint John


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The 27th December is the feast day of Saint John, patron of our church, so we keep the Sunday after as our patronal festival. Here’s what I said, though my apologies for being a little late. My script was somewhat annotated from the computer copy and after the service a member of the congregation asked to borrow it to read. Now it’s been returned I am able to post what I actually said.

The Church is often accused of being out of touch with society. Well, it certainly seems to be out of touch with society on the few days after Christmas Day as those who attend mass on the three days after Christmas Day can testify. For they are faced with a Church that is a far cry from the eating, drinking and partying that is going on in the world outside. Get to Boxing Day and it’s clear that the Church isn’t celebrating the way everyone else is at all.

Once Christmas day is over it perhaps comes as something of a surprise to those who attend mass on subsequent three days that the joyful spirit of Christmas is absent from the liturgy. For immediately, on Boxing Day, we are confronted with the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian Church. Then this is followed by Saint John. A slight respite there as Saint John is the only one of the apostles not to die a martyr’s death. But then hot on the heels of Saint John comes the commemoration of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. These second, third, and fourth days of Christmas were called Witness days from earliest times. These three feasts were placed on these three days to illustrate the triple kind of martyrdom endured – Saint Stephen in both will and deed for he chose martyrdom and suffered it willingly, Saint John in will for he would have faced martyrdom willingly, and the Holy Innocents in deed for they were given no choice but suffered martyrdom all the same. And these three days – this mini-season – are part of the Christmas season which lasts for Twelve Days, for in honouring angel-face Stephen’s crown, Saint John’s witness, and the sinless slaughtered children of Palestine, we do honour to the Christmas faith of millions who have come through the struggle for innocence and justice, and bring the gift of their martyrdom to the martyred Jesus.

We hear about Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles. He is named as the first of those appointed to be deacons in the church, whose ministry is described as distributing food and aid to the poorer members of the Church. He was the first follower of Jesus to be called to be a martyr, a witness in word and deed, in life and death – the word martyr is Greek and means ‘witness’. Then we have John, often portrayed as an old man as he is on the icon which hangs in my vestry. He stands for all those called to witness in life but not in death, in word and witness, but not in the bloody baptism of martyrdom. He alone of the apostles was to be spared martyrdom – traditionally because he alone of the apostles stood by Jesus at the cross as Jesus died, instead of running away. Then we have the Bethlehem infants who symbolize the millions of innocents who have perished in the appalling holocausts of human history, those who have never even had a chance to live out their potential in life – part of the Christmas story but not very “Christmassy”. They are represented in our great East window with its depiction of Jesus in glory surrounded by the saints and martyrs – you can see them, two little babies, halfway down the right hand window.

And these three sorts of saints have been called the “Companions of Christ” and “Christ’s nobility”.  John, especially, because of the gospel that bears his name as well as because of his appearances in the three other gospels, has been linked intimately to the Jesus of history. In the gospels he is called Boanerges, a son of thunder – in his teenage enthusiasm he wanted to firebomb Jesus’ critics. He ended his days dying of old age and full of grace, having taken the Mother of Jesus to live with him in his home.  He acquired other names in all those years – Apostle, Evangelist, Divine (or theologian) – and there are churches bearing all those titles in our own diocese – and traditionally he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” And these three feast days have been a part of the Church’s celebration of Christmas since early times.

In the eleventh century this little season of Christmas saints became the Festum Fatuorum, the Feast of Fools. A time for great merrymaking and drinking and dressing up in clothes. Especially, it seems, men dressing up in women’s clothes – perhaps the less said about that the better. On the Feast of Stephen, in honour of their fellow deacon, all the deacons in the church would party, and like their antecedent, were eager to get stoned.  On Holy Innocents it was the turn of the choir boys and acolytes to have their party, in all innocence. And on St. John’s day, the priests had their party, and there grew up in places the custom of blessing “St John’s wine” from the tradition that John had been given a cup of poisoned wine that did him no harm, and Jesus had promised him he would tarry till Jesus came again for him.  Christians toasted each other “Drink one for the love of St. John”. St. John’s wine was drunk before a long journey, as insurance for a safe trip, and so the custom of one more for the road had its origin. It was also the custom when near death, after having received the last rites to prepare for the journey to heaven, to drink “St John’s wine” – one for the road.

And what Saint John – patron of our Church – has this morning is a special message for us:   a message that is the message of every Christmastide.  John’s gospel begins with the prologue, “In the beginning was the Word. . .” and goes on to regale us with Life, Light Power, Grace, Truth, Glory, Fulness. It is the primary Christian preaching, and if only one mass is celebrated on Christmas day,  it is the first chapter of John which is read, not Luke’s story about the manger, not Matthew’s about the magi, but John’s, a hymn to the eternal  Logos, the Utterance of God who becomes flesh and bone and as John puts ”pitches his tent among us.”

More than all the other writers we see in the writer of John’s gospel someone determined to ponder upon not only the events of that life, but its meaning.  In John’s gospel, the Christmas liturgy becomes an Easter liturgy, as do all liturgies. Death is conquered by this Birth. The tomb of humankind has been opened by the cry of this newborn. It is John who sees that Christ must be born in our hearts, for “to as many as received him he gave power to become children of God.” The collect for Saint John’s day comes from the ancient liturgies of the Church and was taken by Cranmer from the pre-Reformation Sarum Rite. In it we pray that the Church will be illumined by the brightness of this Christmas light. It is a prayer that we may all be filled with the light of Christ and so be enabled to walk in his footsteps.

John sees the connection so clearly, for “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in the darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” John was called by Jesus as were all the apostles: Follow me. And like John we too are called to follow Jesus, to walk with John and all the saints and martyrs on our journey through life. For this life is a journey. Here, as the writer to the Hebrews says, “we have no abiding city, for we journey towards the city that is to come.” In this life we are on a journey, a journey towards the everlasting city of God where our true home is.

So let us as we celebrate our patron Saint John this morning raise a toast as people did in times past – metaphorically of course – to each other, “Drink one for Saint John, one for the road,” as we remind ourselves that no matter what this life brings, no matter what sacrifices we may be called to make as we follow Jesus, we will like Saint John one day reach the end of the road that leads to eternal life.