The Gospel of John has perplexed students of the Bible for many years because of its striking differences from the other three Gospels [Mark, Matthew, Luke]. For this reason, St. John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be accepted by the Church into the developing canon of books we know today as the New Testament. For those who are unfamiliar with this Gospel as a stand-alone text, I do recommend Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John [1998, 2005] by Father Francis Moloney as an excellent overview of this powerful text.
Scholars today appreciate that each of the four evangelists wrote his Gospel as a historical theologian, meaning that each writer was gifted by the Holy Spirit with a unique insight or inspiration into the identity and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. This theological perspective accounts for the arrangement, description, and inclusion of both the material aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry as well as how those events were understood by the first faithful witnesses. It is the differences between the Gospels as well as their common ground which allows each author to bring home the identity and meaning of Jesus in a unique whole.
Most Catholics do not read the Gospels as individual, self-contained units of meaning. We carry in our heads the Chinese menu approach to the Gospels—something from column A, a healthy serving from column C, a touch from column D, etc. In Biblical terms, we carry a patch quilt self-satisfying picture of Jesus made up of snatches of our favorite childhood memories. As a result, it is nigh impossible for us, as adults, to shape our belief and morality around Jesus because we know nothing of what he truly stood for. Each of the Gospels poses a distinct and everlasting answer to the question of “Who do men say that I am?” All prayer, all worship, every life decision pivots upon our understanding of the full four-Gospel revelation of Jesus, at least to the degree that our efforts take us.
Every Gospel is unique and distinctive—but beyond that, the Gospel of John is, well, really different. Again, modern scholarship places its time of composition later than the other three, perhaps around 100 A.D. By this time, the Church was nearly a century old and the understandings of the nature and meaning of Jesus began to diverge into multiple misunderstandings. In a way this problem would continue until the first Church Council, Nicaea, in 325 A.D. It was this council which produced the Creed we profess every Sunday, where we profess that Jesus is truly God and truly man. But that Creed would have been impossible without the Gospel of John. In the history of Christian worship, the Church has chosen John’s portrait of the Christ as the center of its three most sacred days, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Easter—because they best identify the meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection as well as the nature of Christ’s Church, then and now. So let us walk through the Triduum through the eyes of John.
Holy Thursday [Liturgy John 13: 1-15]
The Last Supper [Chapters 13-17] begins the second half of John’s Gospel, known as the Book of Glory. It announces that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” [John 13:1] Consequently the following narrative from John 13 till the end of the Gospel is the summary statement of who Jesus is and what the Church is. Dating back to the era of the Church fathers, Christianity has consistently taught that God’s Revelation ends with the death of the last apostle, i.e., John.
John is the only Gospel author to describe the Last Supper as occurring on the night before the Passover; the reason for this will become clear from the text of Good Friday. Moreover, John’s is the only Gospel which does not include Jesus’ blessing of the bread and cup. An obvious reason is that the Church had been celebrating Eucharist for decades before John put pen to paper and the tradition had been more than adequately reported in the previous three Gospels--and in Paul’s 1 Corinthians, which happens to be the second reading of the Holy Thursday Mass.
In place of a description of the origin of the Eucharist, John instead addresses the common bond of love that must exist among his disciples, those who would repeat this sacred action. This concern for unity is echoed in the three Epistles under John’s name, where we find for example in 1 John 3: 18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” Jesus, in John’s Gospel, gathers his disciples to bequeath his last will and testament, so to speak, and he begins with a powerful visual gesture of the ideal disciple who lives in the mold of Christ: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” A kingdom marked by humble fraternity is truly Christ’s, the kingdom of light. When Judas slinks out the door to betray Jesus, John remarks, “And it was night.” [John 13: 30] The kingdom of light and truth is contrasted to the dark world of sin and disbelief.
The final supper discourse continues for a full four more chapters—not read at the Holy Thursday Mass but very worthy of personal reading either at home or during adoration of the Eucharist after the evening Mass of Holy Thursday. These chapters constitute Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples and conclude in Chapter 17 with his prayer of consecration over them.
Good Friday [Liturgy: John Chapter 18 and Chapter 19]
The Good Friday Passion narrative begins with a quick, purposeful departure of Jesus, followed by his disciples, from the dinner to an unidentified garden across the Kidron Valley. There is no “agony in the garden” in John’s narrative, for in this Gospel Jesus is totally in charge of what will happen as he brings all things to their fulfillment. “Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him….” [John 18: 4] When Judas arrives with soldiers dispatched by the chief priests and pharisees—two distinctly different populations of Jews—they are forced to the ground by the power of Jesus’ verbal identification, “I am.” The “I am” is a self-identification taken from God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush, “’I am who I am’ has sent you…” [Exodus 3:14] Clearly, John is emphasizing Jesus’ divinity throughout the day’s events; even in the skirmish in the garden one gets the sense that it is Jesus who allows its outcome.
John lengthens the Jewish trial by adding an initial hearing before the chief priest emeritus, Annas, just as he elongates Jesus’ trial before Pilate several hours later with multiple hearings. There is considerable judicial dialogue here in both cases, certainly more than in the other three Gospels. John highlights the reality here that neither Jew nor Gentile [Pilate] has a compelling case against him, but more than that, we see the truth of Jesus’ words to Pilate that ‘my kingdom is not of this world.” [John 18:36] Neither the religious nor the secular powers of the time can hold a candle to the blazing truth of God’s son.
John 17: 28-29 introduces the lengthy and profound dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. The leaders of the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to the Roman Praetorium, with John commenting that “they themselves did not enter the praetorium, in order not to be defiled so that they could eat the Passover [that night].” As noted above, John is the only evangelist who describes Jesus’ passion and death as taking place before the Passover. Nor is there anything like the long dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in any of the other Gospels.
Consider the dating of this Gospel: it was written around 100 A.D., well after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus was interpreted by Christians as God’s judgment upon Israel for its rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. By the time the Johannine Gospel was circulating, the Jews were scattered throughout the Mediterranean, having suffered the loss of their religious and psychological home. The Christian Church, by the time of this Gospel, had spread throughout much of the Roman Empire and centered itself in Rome, the site of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. Consequently, the Church found itself in the somewhat new position of orienting its relationship with the empire then in its prime.
The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate parallels the Church’s understanding of itself in the larger Gentile world of Rome. The two quotes most remembered come from Jesus [“My kingdom is not of this world”] and Pilate [“What is truth?”] Christians reading John’s words in their own time would have been reminded that they were, by virtue of baptism, citizens of another land, the kingdom of God. Pilate, in the face of Jesus’ declaration, is reduced to throwing his hands in the air as if to say, “my world has no answer to yours.”
After the elongated drama at the Praetorium, Jesus is crucified, with two other men, at “The Place of the Skull.” There are a number of distinct episodes found only in John: the displeasure of the chief priests with the inscription on the cross [“Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews”]; the soldiers shooting dice but leaving his seamless tunic intact [Psalm 22: 19, “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture”], the identification of the women—including his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene—at the foot of the cross, and the entrusting of his mother to “the disciple whom he loved.” If this sequence sounds for all the world like Jesus gathering a new family/community beneath his cross, read on.
Despite his predicament, Jesus remains in command. There is none of the darkness upon the earth that the other evangelists report. The glory of God is shining forth. After drinking the wine—the new wine of God’s kingdom—Jesus announces, “It is finished. And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.” [John 19:30] He handed over the spirit—words deliberated crafted by John to describe this moment as the first true Pentecost of the new kingdom. To reinforce this, only John describes the lancing of Jesus’ side by a soldier, “and immediately blood and water flowed out” [John 19:34]. Water and blood—the first great sacramental signs of the Church, of Baptism and Eucharist—spill out upon the new community gathered at his feet. There is another powerful sign here as well. Midafternoon of the day of Passover the temple priests were butchering hundreds upon hundreds of lambs for families and pilgrims to roast that evening. The piercing of the Lamb of God on the cross by an unnamed soldier marks the era of the new, final Passover of God. Such is the spiritual genius of John. And as a curious footnote, Nicodemus, who earlier in this Gospel had approached Jesus to talk with him in the darkness of night, comes forward now in the daylight with precious oils to anoint his body. [John 19: 39]
Easter [Liturgies: John 20 and John 21 on Easter and throughout Easter Week]
Scripture scholars employ what is called the “law of embarrassment” in studying the Gospels. Simply put, embarrassing incidents recorded in the Gospel have a higher possibility of historical basis. The denial of Jesus by Peter, for example, is recorded in all four Gospels [an example also of another working principle, “multiple attestation.”] It is hard to imagine anyone creating such a shameful account about the apostle Jesus called “the Rock.” In John’s Resurrection narratives there are several such incidents which, at the very least, indicate that in reality it took the new community of faith a fair amount of time [weeks? months? years?] to believe in the fact of the Resurrection, let alone its implications.
For starters, the very opening line of John’s Resurrection narrative is a surprise—a woman is the first to behold the empty tomb. It is Mary Magdalene who announces to the disciples that the body is missing. Interestingly, Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” [John 20: 3-6] both run to the site; the unnamed disciple [traditionally believed to be the Apostle John] arrives first, but defers to Peter, who enters the tomb first. There is an interesting sub-dynamic in this Gospel of establishing Peter’s pride of place, particularly in John 21, which suggests that in the early church there may have been subdivisions of allegiance. See Father Raymond Brown’s 1978 classic, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times. Peter observed that the burial cloths are neatly folded and separated—a clear contrast to the earlier Johannine story of the raising of Lazarus, who stumbled out of his tomb still bound with burial cloths. Jesus has not simply been resuscitated like Lazarus, but the full implications are not understood.
Mary Magdalene continues to hold the center stage, however. Sitting at the empty tomb weeping, she encounters two angels, who evidently were not there when the two disciples had visited earlier. Mary concedes to them that she knows nothing more than that the body of Jesus is missing. Then Jesus appears to her, though Mary mistakes him for the gardener. This is a confusing text, and again it suggests that Jesus was not “recognized” in the early post-Resurrection era. There is an interesting parallel to this Johannine episode. St. Luke’s Gospel [Luke 24: 13-35] has a similar encounter in which the two disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize Jesus on Easter Sunday afternoon, and they do not recognize him until he breaks bread. In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene does not recognize him until he calls her by name.
A curious thing then happens. Jesus instructs Mary to “stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” [John 20: 17] This is clearly a loaded statement which implies, at the very least, that Jesus in his resurrected being cannot remain in human contact with his new community forever as he is destined to sit at the right hand of the Father for all eternity, though this enshrinement has not yet happened because Jesus has unfinished business. At the Last Supper, Jesus had explained this to the disciples but promised to send his Paraclete, his Spirit of Truth. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene in the garden to relay the message to his disciples that he is going to his Father. For the first time in this Gospel a human being recognizes the true risen nature of Jesus, for she later announces to the disciples “I have seen the Lord,” a term with divine meaning in the Johannine Gospel. She could have said, “I have seen our Jesus as God.”
If the disciples truly grasped what Mary had told them, it was not evident as the disciples were still hiding behind locked doors when Jesus appeared to them late in the day and stood in their midst, locked doors or not. John’s Gospel was written at a time when a major heresy or error was troubling the Church, i.e., “Docetism.” This error held that Jesus was not human but rather a divine phantom. John brilliantly balances the divine elements of Jesus’ new being—passing through a locked door—with the human when he invites the disciples to view the wounds in his hands and side—and later, invites Thomas to put his finger in the nail wounds! As the gradual faith and realization of the Resurrection dawns upon the disciples, Jesus breathes upon them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
In John’s Gospel, the essence of the Church is established in the Holy Thursday-Good Friday-Easter time span. Jesus, in his second Pentecost moment, conveys the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, men he had instructed and prepared during the Last Supper. He has ascended to glory at his Father’s right hand, for he invites the disciples to touch him, unlike earlier in the day when he cautioned Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him. He has established the Church as a redeeming community empowered to forgive sin. As one of my professors joked, Jesus had a very busy Easter.
And of course, there is doubting Thomas, who missed this solemn resurrection appearance with his brethren. Thomas is an enormously important figure in John’s Gospel and in the very constitution of the Church. For Thomas is the Christian template for all those baptized in the future, who must depend not upon eyewitness experience of Jesus like the ten disciples in the upper room, but upon the faith-filled eyewitness accounts of others. John quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” John concludes the corpus of his Gospel with his explanation of the evangelization process: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”
The formal end of John’s Gospel is recognized as Chapter 20. Chapter 21 is believed to have been added later, and it suggests  that the disciples took some time to recognize Jesus and the meaning of his Resurrection;  that Peter was personally identified by Jesus as the one to “lead his flock; and  it was necessary to defuse a rumor that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” would not see death until the second coming of Jesus. [See Father Brown, above.] The Church has always included Chapter 21 as part of the New Testament Canon.