St John the Theologian, the Feast Day of 26 September, The Calendar cycle (or Menologion cycle) by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

St John the Theologian, the Feast Day of 26 September, The Calendar cycle (or Menologion cycle), 1343–48, Fresco, Narthex of the katholikon of the Dečani Monastery, Kosovo, Courtesy of BLAGO Fund, www.blagofund.org

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An Immortal Disciple?

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This final passage of John’s Gospel centres on an ambiguous saying of Jesus, which provoked a rumour. ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ (John 21:22). Did this mean that this disciple would remain alive to witness Christ’s second coming? At least some of the brethren thought so (v.23). Yet the beloved disciple seems to have died by the time this passage was written. Hence the problem, and the need to challenge the rumour.

Yet the rumour was not completely scotched. This saying of Jesus was sufficiently ambiguous to provoke different answers concerning John’s destiny. Augustine knew the story that the earth near John’s tomb in Ephesus continued to move, a sign that John was not dead but sleeping (On the Gospel of John, Tractate 124.2). In one western tradition, John was destined to wander the earth until the Lord’s return.

Perhaps most widespread in the East is the tradition of John’s metastasis or ‘translation’ (the feast of which is celebrated on 26th September), depicted in this fourteenth-century fresco from Dečani Monastery in Kosovo. The aged John urges his followers to dig a grave for him outside the city of Ephesus. He lies down in the grave, and his disciples return to the city. When they subsequently revisit the burial site, his body is no longer there. One interpretation among Orthodox Christians is that John, like Enoch, Elijah (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11–12), and Mary, was translated to heaven.

The Dečani Monastery fresco, like the feast it visualizes, plays on the ambiguity of the dominical saying. On the one hand, John dies in that grave outside Ephesus. On the other, his ‘translation’ means that he is alive in the heavenly realm, where he ‘remains’ until the Lord comes. ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

 

References

Culpepper, R. Alan. 2000. John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)


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