Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Beloved Disciple

St John the Apostle, by Deodato Orlandi, ca. 1310

Last week we looked at St. Stephen, the first of the so-called Comrades of Christ who huddle close in spirit to the manger of their Lord. Today we pay homage to the second Comrade.

Like Stephen, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is associated with charity, since his writings marvelously emphasize the love of God. [1] John, in turn, was blessed by Christ’s special love for him. Although Our Lord made St. Peter the head of His Church, He retained a personal affection for the “beloved disciple.” This is all the more endearing given the fact that Our Lord also referred to John and his older brother St. James the Great as “sons of thunder,” most likely for their fiery tempers. (Mark 3, 17)

It is difficult for any lover of the Latin Mass not to have a special love for St. John, whose Prologue to his Gospel furnishes us with the Gregorian rite’s seemingly misplaced yet magnificent conclusion. I say seemingly misplaced, for no one would logically expect another Gospel to be read after the dismissal and final blessing. Yet the Prologue to John’s Gospel, which St. Jerome says is so splendid that it should be written in letters of gold, is the perfect summary of the mystery of the altar and the perfect blueprint of how we should henceforth conduct ourselves. For in speaking of the Word becoming flesh, the Prologue reminds us not only of the Incarnation, but of the Eucharist, God in the flesh before us. And in describing the testimony of John the Baptist, the Prologue admonishes us to bear similar witness after we leave the church to Him that is “full of grace and truth.”

It has been said that St. John was the only Apostle who did not die a martyr because he already testified to the Cross by standing at its foot with the Mother of God. Yet this does not mean that no attempts on his life were ever made. According to St. Jerome, John was brought to Rome and thrown into a vat of boiling oil but emerged miraculously unscathed (on the spot near the Porta Latina where this is reputed to have taken place, there is a tiny shrine and, not far away, a beautiful Romanesque church named San Giovanni). The frustrated Emperor then banished John to the Island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation.
St John at Patmos, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1489
In the traditional Roman Rite prior to 1955, the Feast of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist had a proper Mass on December 27 and on the octave day of January 3. In the Breviary, the feast featured Psalm antiphons for Lauds that told the story of his life as well as proper antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat and a proper Collect. Prior to 1960, John’s cult was also recapitulated on May 6 as the Feast of St. John at the Latin Gate, the anniversary of his would-be martyrdom.
In Vino Caritas
But perhaps the Saint’s most famous brush with death (as far as popular folklore is concerned) is when his enemies tried to kill him by poisoning his cup of wine. Some say that when the Divine John (as he is called in the East) made the sign of the cross over the cup, it split in half, thus spilling the poison. Others, however, claim that his blessing neutralized the deadly beverage and allowed him to enjoy it unharmed. Either way, it is a powerful reminder to say one’s grace before meals.
It is also a reminder to observe an old and charming custom that literally toasts to the memory of the saint. In the Roman ritual is a blessing of wine specifically for this feast:
O Lord God, deign to bless and consecrate with Thy right hand this cup of wine and of any drink whatsoever: and grant that by the merits of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist all who believe in Thee and who drink from this cup may be blessed and protected. And as Blessed John drank poison from the cup and remained completely unharmed, may all who drink from this cup on this day in honor of Blessed John be, by his merits, rescued from every sickness of poison and from every kind of harm; and, offering themselves up body and soul, may they be delivered from all fault. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless, O Lord, this drink, Thy creation: that it may be a salutary remedy for all who consume it: and grant through the invocation of Thy holy name that whoever tastes of it may, by Thy generosity, receive health of the soul as well as of the body. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, descend upon this wine, Thy creation, and upon any drink whatsoever, and remain forever. Amen.
According to Maria von Trapp, it was customary in Austria and other places to bring wine or cider to church on this day so that the priest could give this blessing after Mass. Later that night, the wine is poured into everyone’s glass before dinner. The father then takes his glass, touches it to the mother’s and says, “I drink to you the love of St. John,” to which the mother replies, “I thank you for the love of St. John.” Both take a sip before the mother turns to the oldest child and repeats the ritual, at which point the child turns to the next oldest, etc. The last one to receive St. John’s love gives it back to the father, thus closing the family circle. [2]
Trapp Family Singers, 1941
Since the blessed wine is a sacramental, it is also kept in the house throughout the year for newlyweds to drink immediately after their wedding ceremony, for travelers before a trip, and for the dying after receiving Last Rites. But if it is not possible to have the wine blessed by a priest, the blessing may still be said by the family (it will not have the same efficacy, of course, but it is still a prayer to God).
And the wine can also be mulled.
St. John’s Wine
1 quart red wine
3 whole cloves
1/16 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 two-inch cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
Pour the wine into a large saucepan. Add the remaining ingredients. Boil for 5 minutes. Serve hot. 8-10 servings.
This is an ideal family treat, since most of the alcohol is evaporated. And it is perfect for a cold winter’s night: its temperature warms the tips of one’s toes, and the story it betokens the cockles of one’s heart. May the Love of the Infant Jesus fill the cup of our souls as it surely did Christ’s good comrades.

For more information on the Christmas season, see Michael Foley's latest book, Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022). An earlier version of this article also appeared as “The Counts of Jesu Christo” in The Latin Mass magazine 17:5 (Advent/Christmas 2008), pp. 44-47. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its inclusion here.
[1] See John 3, 16; 1 John 4, 7-8.
[2] Maria Augusta Trapp, Around the Year with the Trapp Family (NY: Pantheon, 1955), pp. 64-65.

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