The Gospel of John presents us with a very powerful and rather earthy mystical image. As John describes the Last Supper scene he tells us that as they were at table the beloved disciple was reclining with his head against Jesus’s breast. The power of this image has, I believe, been better captured by artists than by theologians and biblical scholars. Artists and iconographers generally present the image to us in this way: the beloved disciple has his head leaning on Jesus’s breast in such a way that his ear is directly above Jesus’s heart but so that his eyes are fixed outward looking at the world.
What a powerful image! If you put your ear at just the right place on someone’s chest you can hear that person’s heartbeat. The beloved disciple then is the one who is attuned to the heartbeat of God and is looking out at the world from that vantage point.
Further, John gives us a series of other images to flesh out the implications of hearing God’s heartbeat. First, the beloved disciple stands with Jesus’s mother at the foot of the Cross as Jesus is dying. What’s encapsulated in this image?
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus admits that sometimes darkness seems to overpower grace and God seems powerless. Sometimes darkness just has its hour. His death was one of those hours and the beloved disciple, like Jesus’s mother, could do nothing other than stand in helplessness inside and beneath that darkness and injustice.
There was nothing to be done but to stand inside the helplessness. But, by standing there, the beloved disciple also stands in solidarity with the millions of poor and victimised people all over the world who can do nothing about their plight.
When one stands in helplessness, when there’s nothing possible to be done, one gives silent voice to human finitude, the deepest prayer possible at that moment. Then, afterwards, the beloved disciple takes the mother of Jesus into his home, an image that doesn’t need much elaboration.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection