John’s icon of Jesus

Daily Reading for December 27 • St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

The icon of Jesus painted by John is his gospel is not a naturalistic rendering. The other gospel writers also created distinctive impressions of Jesus with an artistry wholly unlike modern biography or journalism. But John has taken the boldest steps away from reportage into the creative realm, using distortion and selectivity and elaboration with shocking freedom. What we recognize as some of the most emphatic features of John’s portrait of Jesus are, I believe, the very features that we ourselves will acquire through conversion. John has Jesus continually return to certain themes so that we can see as in a mirror the new features of our own converted lives.

Three very prominent characteristics of John’s portrait of Jesus are as instantly recognizable as the elongations and storminess of an El Greco painting. The first is an intense awareness of being sent by God. The theme of phrases such as “this is the will of the One who sent me” resound again and again. But the intensity and saturation of this coloring of all Jesus’ words and actions with the sense of “sentness” is not meant to separate us from him, and thus degrade our discipleship by comparison. The opposite is true. The believer in Jesus gains in conversion exactly the same conviction of having been given life and of being brought into the world to fulfill a mission from God. The new vision that comes with conversion brings with it the gift of a sense that one’s life is purposeful, that one has been given a mission, a life-task for God.

The second and intimately related feature of John’s icon of Jesus is agency. Jesus knows what he is doing and when it is time to do it, and he knows that he is doing it. We can be pretty sure that this is based on actual memories of Jesus. All the way through, Jesus’ words emphasize his own authority and responsibility for his actions. Now it is just this sense of agency and responsibility that comes as a gift from God in the converted life. In profane life, human beings suffer from a sense that not only are their lives accidental, but the fate to which they must resign themselves is that of being forever pushed around, manipulated, and dictated to. In the converted life, we are endowed with responsibility and with power.

The third feature of John’s gospel, which blends into the other two, is that of centeredness. The Jesus of John’s gospel can say “I am” so powerfully because he is totally understood and known by God. He is so known by God that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. And this is the authority that comes to us as converted believers. If I know myself to be utterly known, utterly known and completely loved, then I am. I really am. I really exist. I mean everything to God and therefore my life has meaning.

From “The Converted Life” in Nativities and Passions: Words for Transformation by Martin L. Smith (Cowley Publications, 1995).

Past Posts