Saint John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple
and the Centenary of Richard Meux Benson (1824-1915)
The emptiness of the tomb marks a caesura, a break, in the story of Jesus. There was his life of ministry, then his passion and death, and then…. The empty tomb. Now what? Then the encounters with the Risen Christ began. The accounts of those meetings have a spooky air about them, rather like Elvis sightings. Is it him or is it not? Immediately following this Gospel, Mary turns and sees a man she presumes to be a gardener. He asks why she is weeping, and she tells him why, begging him to give her the body of her crucified Teacher. The gardener then calls her by name, “Mary,” and she knows it’s Jesus: “Rabbouni.” Her instinct is to reach out, to embrace, but he tells her no. Things have changed: between them, between him and all the disciples.
We see that change in other stories about the Risen Lord. We meet a curiously learned stranger on the road. Only after hours spent together does he pick up a loaf of bread, bless and break it, and suddenly we know: it is Jesus. And just as we recognize him, he is gone.
We’ve been fishing all night, catching nothing, and a guy on the shore shouts a fishing tip at us. We’re desperate, so we give it a try, and are amazed: the fish really are on the right side of the boat. And then we know…. it is the Lord.
We are together in a room, troubled and afraid, and suddenly there is a ghost who claims he is Jesus. Desperate to convince us he’s a real person, flesh and blood, he asks for something to eat. As he swallows a bit of baked fish, we know: it is no ghost, it was the Lord.
This is all very odd. In the way of the ancient world and of traditional societies still today, Jesus seems to have been with others almost constantly. And yet, with all of that interaction, those closest to him struggled to recognize him when he was once more among them. The inability of the disciples to recognize the Risen Christ certainly complicates the story they have to tell. But this curious–even mysterious–fact, faithfully recorded across the Gospel traditions, must have had special significance for the evangelists. Remember that they were practical theologians, not journalists. They were doing their best to make sense of what by then had become decades of communal experience of Jesus. Something about those original struggles to recognize the Resurrected Christ must have continued to ring true in the life of the Church. And it still does. For it takes time and experience for us to recognize Jesus, whether that be a moment–as for Mary–or longer, as with the disciples heading to Emmaus, or the weary fishermen out in those boats. For them, for us, he is no longer patent as he was before his death. Rather, he is now in some way encrypted. If we are to unlock the mystery of his presence, we must be given the key.
Saint Benedict, my monastic founder, identified that key: the belief that Christ is always present among us, ready to be found by anyone who knows to look. According to our Rule, Christ is to be met in our Abbot, in our guests, in the sick, the old, the poor. He is, in other words, to be recognized in everyone who bears his human likeness. This learning to see him in others will help us in the most difficult challenge of all, seeing him in ourselves. When we are able to do that, we will truly know our kinship with all people. We will know that the Body of Christ is not just a metaphor, but a living reality of which each of us is an integral and necessary part. From this knowledge will come the properly Christian refusal to rank human beings by race, or class, or gender; or to claim superiority on the basis of anything else that is incidental to fundamental human-ness.
This recognition of fundamental solidarity with others is the basis of Christian mission. As those who have been given the key to knowing Christ in the world, we are tasked with helping others to see him living and active among us, meeting us daily in our sisters and brothers, even and especially amidst the often fierce struggle simply to survive.
Throughout his long life, Richard Meux Benson was driven by this imperative of mission. He lived long enough to see the horrific failure, in “Christian” Europe, of not seeing Christ in another. By then, fifty years after founding his Society, he must surely have felt like the ancient of days, if not a dinosaur. It could not have been easy for him to understand or accept much of what he saw, whether in the Society itself or in the crumbling world around him. As we have seen, this experience of being born into one world and surviving into another seems woven into the fabric of Christian life. Things change, even fundamental things, and they can change very quickly. For the disciples, Jesus was once more alive, though not in the same way. He was not “still” alive or alive “again,” but he was living totally anew. Just as he was changed in his resurrected life, so the disciples had to change to know him as he was now. And then they had to change once more to know him after his Ascension and the coming of the Spirit in Pentecost. As the fixed points of our own lives are washed away by time, or crisis, we too keep learning to know him anew.
The genius of Benedict and of Benson was to keep the challenge ever-present by placing human relationships at the heart of the vowed religious life. This is never primarily about me; it is always about the other, about her needs, about his burden. This is why monks make surprisingly effective missionaries, as the skills honed in daily interactions in community are offered for the pastoral care of those beyond it. Fr Benson put it in terms of the pursuit of holiness or, as he called it, “sanctification”. The Society in its dedication to prayer was indeed pursuing sanctification for its own members, but not for the sake of their own “perfection”: it was all so as to “bring others to be partakers of that same sanctification…. if we abide in [Christ], the life which we have must show itself in acts of love to all [hu]mankind.” Fr Benson was not about “winning souls for Christ” as quickly as possible, at any cost. For him, mission meant solidarity and the quiet witness of prayer, reaching out in sympathy and companionship to draw others into the divine embrace he himself felt so keenly.
This love freed him to renounce his family’s wealth, the career he might have had, the expectations of others, and his own personal comfort. In this he was like the earliest disciples of Jesus, who took a chance on him, surrendering any ability to chart their own course. This could not have been easy for Galilean fishermen! “Follow me”, he said: and follow they did, at great, ultimate cost. Fr Benson threw himself into such reckless following of Christ, seeking him out wherever he was to be found, even in the most unexpected of places. “Reckless” is not a term that one would normally apply to this austere, even forbidding priest. But by any standard, such following of Christ is reckless, for we never know where He will finally take us. Benson was certain enough about his Lord to accept all the uncertainty that follows from true, practical, faith.
A century after his death, and almost a century and a half after the founding of the Society, the uncertainties of the past have become the historical events. New uncertainties have arisen in their due and undue seasons. For religious life to prosper, its mission must be relevant. And so the members of a community must be nimble, alert to the signs of the times pointing us to wherever Christ is revealing himself in our world.
As was the case for Mary, for John, and for the other disciples that first Eastertide, the way to him may not be obvious or simple. Because of their example, however, we have been taught to keep looking, ever alert to the possibility of his surprising, entirely unexpected appearance in our midst. As the beautiful text in the Book of Revelation has it–a book attributed traditionally, though not accurately, but perhaps for our purposes appropriately, to John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple– “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). In this Eucharist, he is with us as host and as food, as guest and as servant. Let us then open the door of our hearts to receive him, here, now, alive in our midst.
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