For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Johannes Assumptus

Rooting around for more writings about John the Apostle and Evangelist at Ephesus, I came across a very Docetist little tract from the second century called the Acts of John. I don't know what the scholarly view is of this text, but one part of it - the very dogmatically Docetist part, in which John has a vision of Christ during the crucifixion, telling him that he is really up above it all, not down there on the messy and unpleasant cross - is very obviously not by the same John who wrote "the Word was made flesh". It seems to me that this part is very much detachable from last section, which deals with John going to his rest.

This final part has many manuscript versions and was meant to be read on his feast day. There are two possible endings.

Before both alternative endings, John celebrates the Holy Eucharist and distributes, and then has the men dig a trench. Stripping down to his shift, he strews his garments in the hole, and then prays. Having "sealed himself in every part" - presumably this means having made the holy sign over various parts of his body (the cross X was the sign of the Hebrew letter Tau, and signified the Tetgrammaton in the Temple liturgy, and hence also the Holy Name of Jesus in the baptismal rite) -
he stood and said: Thou art with me, O Lord Jesu Christ: and laid himself down in the trench where he had strown his garments: and having said unto us: Peace be with you, brethren, he gave up his spirit rejoicing.
The first ending, and the commonest, says that afterward "manna" issuing from the tomb was seen of all. This seems to tie in with a tradition, still current in Augustine's time who mentions it, that John's tomb at Ephesus still heaved with his breathing, as he was not in fact dead; and that the white dust around his altar (called manna) which was stirred had great power of healing. This miracle was said to be observable on the 6th May which was the day of his feast (St. John at the Lateran Gate), and the church containing his tomb was long a great pilgrimage site. The Anglo-Saxon bishop Willibald was a pilgrim to the tomb; pilgrims brought the white dust back with them in flasks.

The second ending is just as intriguing, given the cryptic and ambiguous ending of the Gospel of John, as to whether or not John would actually die, and which ending may have been written by one of the Ephesian Christians who witnessed the events recounted here:
We brought a linen cloth and spread it upon him, and went into the city. And on the day following we went forth and found not his body, for it was translated by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, unto whom be glory.
Yet another variation on the assumption ending ties together the two accounts - the claim that his body was translated into heaven, and the tradition of the "manna":

On the morrow we dug in the place, and him we found not, but only his sandals, and the earth moving (lit. springing up like a well), and after that we remembered that which was spoken by the Lord unto Peter.
It is notable that there are no churches in Christendom, nor have there ever been, who claimed to have relics of St. John. It is notable that John's Gospel does not deny the story that John would "tarry" till the coming of Christ, but only denies the particular rumour that Jesus had meant to say that John would not die when he spoke to Peter after the resurrection. In the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah were translated, the representatives of the Law and the Prophets; in the New Testament, Mary... and John? The immaculate and maternal Church, and the adopted and filial Church, respectively?

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