Feast Day: December 27th | Titles: the Apostle, the Evangelist, the Theologian, the Divine, the Beloved, of Patmos, son of Zebedee, son of Thunder | Patronage: Authors, Booksellers, Editors, Publishers, Scholars, Theologians, Burn-victims, Poison-victims | Attributes: Youth, Eagle, Chalice (with snake), Scrolls, Books
One confronts a unique question when engaging with the character of St. John: what is the best title to give him? As you can see above, he is referred to under many different characteristics and names throughout the New Testament. Glancing at his Gospel, we find that he never names himself, referring instead to the person named John we know from the other Gospels as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, with some of the other titles – apostle, evangelist, theologian, divine – coming from the profundity and intimacy that the 4th Gospel shows us. “Of Patmos” comes from the end of John’s life, when he was exiled to the island of Patmos (a Greek Island), where he received the visions depicted in the book of Revelation. (There is a final title, “the presbyter” sometimes given to St. John, a character mentioned by the early Church historian, Papias, but this seems unlikely given that he lists a John with the other apostles, and then another John “the presbyter”.)
Though all these titles are ones that would be fruitful to reflect upon, I want to turn first to a funnier name that was given to St. John, a nickname from Jesus Himself. In Mark 3:17, while listing those that Jesus called apostles, we find that Jesus called “James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder).” Mark, helpfully, translates for us the term “boanerges”, which was a term that Jesus coined and isn’t found anywhere else in Hebrew or Aramaic literature. Probably a combination of “ben” [son] and “ragesh” [commotion, tumult], it may refer to James and John’s own vehemence and impetuosity, fitting given their clamoring to call down fire upon the inhospitable Samaritan village in Luke 9. It could also refer back to their actual parents, perhaps their father (Zebedee) had a temper, or we do know from Matthew 20 that their mother (probably Salome, who we see at the cross, and carrying spices/myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body). She is also the one who boldly bring James and John to Jesus to ask him that they would sit at His right and left when He became king (a request that brings them ridicule and animosity from the other apostles).
Whichever way one interprets this nickname, we glimpse in it a closeness and familiarity that perhaps we don’t always visualize between Jesus and His apostles, or Jesus and ourselves. Our Lord called these two firebrands to follow him, with their crazy family, and all the heartache it would bring to Him, and to the rest of the twelve. He befriended them, knowing the arguments, and hardheadedness, and brokenness they would bring. And Jesus did not just endure them, He wanted to be best friends with them (along with Peter, another broken bloke). These were the three who would be invited to witness miracles and teachings that even the other Apostles would not be given, including the transfiguration, catching a glimpse of Jesus as He truly is, a moment that would stay with them the rest of their lives.
And that closeness transformed him! St. John is the only one to tell us about Jesus’ miracle at Cana and raising Lazarus, His conversations with Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well, Christ giving us Himself as the Bread of Life, or when Our Lord washed the apostles’ feet, and opened His heart to them in the incomparable prayers and words in the Garden before His passion. Think of John witnessing each of those moments, hearing those words, being trusted and loved by Jesus that much… And, it was a final gift of intimacy that fully melted John’s heart. The only apostle at the crucifixion, John left Golgotha not forsaken, but entrusted with an unprecedented gift: Jesus’ own mother. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
Love transfigured thunder. Friendship beatified brashness. Jesus wants to do the same for you, and me, and He does it every time we come to the foot of His cross, when we see His Blood poured out again for us.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has his own dose of thunder in his heart and history, BUT every day Jesus just invites me to give all of it to Him again, and become a son like Him.