When Rosean and I travel in the summer, we often visit the old growth redwood forests of northern California. It is difficult to take a photo of these ancient trees that captures their monumental girth and height. A shot of the trees alone gives the viewer no sense of how huge they are. But if you put a human in the photograph, you have to focus on a much smaller portion of the forest.
You can talk about the trees. You can say that the bigger ones are as tall as thirty story buildings. You can mention the fact that their lowest branches are around 100 feet above the ground. You can say that there are animals that live in their top branches who never see the ground. But none of this gives your audience the experience of standing in a vast, silent grove of 1,500 year old trees. Each person must experience the redwoods for themselves, and each will come away inadequate in describing them.
The writers of the gospels had a similar but even larger problem. How does one describe Jesus who is the Christ? It is hard to capture the scope, the profound meaning, of who this person is and what he came to accomplish. It is very difficult to share the experience of him with others so that they understand what he is all about.
Each of the four approaches the problem in a different way. Mark just jumps into the story, describing the events in quick succession. Matthew begins with a genealogy and Luke with the story of two women who each midwife and give birth to the divine. And John takes the large, sweeping photograph that tries to capture the entire forest.
Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. John, whose lyrical and mystical account gives us a rich balance to the synoptic gospels. Here we find the multi-layered images of Jesus as living water, the light of the world, the true vine, and the Way, the Truth and the Life. Here are the stories of the wedding at Cana, Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman.
Like the descriptions of the redwoods cannot substitute for actually being in the old growth forest, so the stories of Jesus cannot stand in for a relationship with him. But the one can lead to the other. I am deeply grateful for St. John the Evangelist. His exquisite Gospel opens windows to Jesus, to his actual presence, to the knowledge and love of him. He describes the vast forest of Jesus’ essence so that all of us can see.
I am deeply indebted to him, and I will praise him all my life. His many layered metaphors and countless pithy phrases from and about Jesus have guided my spiritual development for all the decades of my adult life. And I don’t envision coming to the end of what I can come to understand through reading his words. He is indeed something to celebrate.