The Word

St. John declares that words make us human.  That words, even, make us exist.  It is words, and not pictograms or tools or logic or emotions.  And so St. John is the patron saint of writers.

I mean St. John the Evangelist, theoretical author of what is known as John’s gospel.  I don’t know or care who wrote the thing.  The prologue is one of my favorite pieces of literature.  (St. John also theoretically wrote Revelation, but Martin Luther and I don’t approve of Revelation.)

“In the beginning was the word.”  And part of Jewish, and Christian, creation tradition has held that the world was made with words.  This “God” or “Lord” character speaks to make things be.

At the art museum here, we have a stained glass window that was made in medieval Europe, showing St. John holding a cup with a snake in it.  The story is, St. John and his buddies were captured by some bad guy, and the bad guy forces St. John and his buddies drink poison.  This bad guy must be building the grand tradition of unnecessarily elaborate execution techniques honored in “Austin Powers” with my favorite “sharks with lasers.”

St. John is so uber powerful that he drinks his poison, and then his buddies’ poison, and he’s fine.  Well, maybe he has a little food-poisoning type digestive discomfort, but  the point of the story is that poison cannot kill him.  He is a badass.

Some people find St. John’s gospel a little airy.  Some people say that Jesus’ feet never touch the ground.  I don’t see that.  What I see is a writer who had an experience of the Christ, rather than Jesus the man, and painted a more abstract picture.  The author struggled to find any language that would put the power of a Christ figure into focus.  Any language that would contain the experience at all.  St. John’s gospel explodes the Jesus notion into the Christ idea.  It says, you have no idea what this Christ thing means.  You have no idea how big this is.  You have no idea the force of love over ambivalence, confusion, or loss.

When I was in Rome last summer, I searched all over the Vatican City for a St. Giovanni Evangelista medal.  I’m not Catholic, and I have never bought or owned a medal, except, perhaps, the Libra medal that my step-grandma bought me when I was little.  I don’t think that counts.  In each little shop, I walked past the counters of rosaries and small towns of statues to bins of medals.  “St. Giovanni,” I told the salesclerks.  They nodded.  “Evangelista,” I added.  Their lips pursed pessimistically.

Only at one spot, directly across the street from St. Peter’s, did I find a silver St. Giovanni Evangelista.  He wears the usual Bible-person type robes, and he has a book in his lap.  His buddy animal (the patronage goes on and on) is the eagle, so an eagle perches on the book.  St. John and the eagle are both too tiny to have real facial expressions, but I think the eagle looks like he’s thinking, “Whassup?”  I bought the medal, and put it on immediately.

At my church, St. John is the right-hand side of the triptych.  Christ in the middle, St. Peter on the left.  St. Peter holds his keys, which always makes him look like an annoying older brother.  Jesus left me with the keys, y’all, so, watch it! St. John, as usual, has his snake cup. He take the poison for himself, and for anyone else who’s feeling weak.  That’s what makes him such a good man to have around, not just for writers, but anybody who runs into a bad guy now and then.

Holy Water

Although he is regularly served expensive food, my white cat thinks I’m trying to starve him to death.  He woke up early on Orthodox Easter, found the beet-red boiled egg I’d been given, and chewed one end of it off.  Scattered around the gnawed egg, I found the pastel foil-wrapped chocolates the priest had sprinkled with holy water.

At the service I attended the night before, my friend held her three-year-old son in her lap.  He wiggled and touched her face.  He wore a little vest and tie and suit pants, reminding me of the little clothes I pulled onto my baby brother’s limbs, only sixteen years ago.

I loved how we passed the light, candle to candle, in the pitch-dark room.  We do that at my church, too, and it’s gorgeous every time.  With our flames in hand, we left the sanctuary to circle the building.  This was a new thing for me.  Off to the west, lightning tapped on and off.  All around the building, and I was mostly thinking about how to hold my candle and trying not to run into anything.

When we got back to the front door, the priests and choir did some singing and proclaiming, basically winding up for the Easter pitch.  One, then two, then four drops fell on my head, and I thought, will we really stand out here with the priests in the bright cream brocade, the torches, the big gold starts on poles, the incense, and let the rain pour down on us?  I wondered, and wondered, and then we went inside.

I loved singing the same three phrases a million times: “Christ is risen from the dead/trampling down death by death/and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”  We don’t repeat much of anything in the Anglican prayer book.  That means you have only one time to let it sink in.  I appreciate repeating words.  It takes into account the slow, dumb nature of humans.  After singing it twelve or twenty times, I actually started to think about “those in the tombs.”

Children in the sanctuary were wrapped in sleeping bags, fleece blankets, and Dad jackets.  They slept and dozed and were walked up and down the aisle.  The service had started at midnight.  Then it was one.  Two.  (At my church, we do a long Easter Vigil, but it starts at eight, not midnight.)  We were all probably drifting in and out of focus.  Only the children could show their ebb and flow, their eyes closed or open, their bodies still or squirming.

I also loved hearing the lessons and singing in many languages: Greek, Russian, Latin, Spanish, Urdu, Belarusian.  Especially the opening of John’s gospel in Greek.  I studied ancient Greek to be able to read that piece in the original language.  If you have that piece of literature, you don’t need anything else.  It’s poetry, theology, philosophy.

After the service, we went outside again to bless the Easter baskets.  I put Spanish wine and chocolates in mine.  The others had candy and liquor, but also meat, bread, and dairy– they had observed Lent much more strictly.  Our candles were used again, this time to light up the baskets, kind of like birthday cakes.  The priest held a three-pronged candelabra and blessed our treats and how much we would enjoy them.

The evening culminates in a feast, down in the parish hall.  I’ve seen a lot of drinking, but I’ve never seen grown people gulp bottles of beer so gleefully.  That holy water must be effective… on people, and on cats.