Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Last Witness

For some strange reason people are naturally fascinated by the last surviving witness or witnesses of a major historical event

They do not usually have anything major to say that is not known already

But they seem to represent a living link or a means of direct access to an event the impact of which has been dimmed by time

In some way they are a human and tangible symbol of the significance of that event. Therein lies their importance. They have a historical authority simply because they are there regardless of what it was that they actually saw or heard at the time of the great event. And on their passing it is as if the historical event becomes more remote and less capable of being understood.

The last witness or witnesses excite the public imagination and interest. Much more than a written account of the event or a film or play or radio programme describing it.

For example, the last survivors of the First World War. Now the last survivor is Florence Beatrice Green (née Patterson, born 19 February 1901) who is the last known living veteran of the First World War. She was a member of the Women's Royal Air Force

Here is a clip from a TV programme made in 1956 showing the last surviving person present at Ford`s Theatre when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. At the time of the killing he was 5 years old. The show was taped in 1956 when he was 96 years old. Again he did not see very much of the incident. All he can remember was seeing a man jump on stage (Wilkes Booth) But the tape does hold a particular fascination and that fascination was shared by the TV panel and audience in 1956

The BBC World Service has a popular programme called Witness with talks with people who lived through moments of history

The early Church must have felt the same way when the Apostle St John passed away. By tradition he was the last surviving apostle.

He was not a mere bystander who glimpsed major events by accident or by chance

It would appear likely that originally he was a disciple of John the Baptist before being called as the second disciple by Christ

The Catholic Encyclopedia helpfully summarises his role:

"Peter, James, and [John] were the only witnesses of the raising of Jairus's daughter (Mark 5:37), of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1), and of the Agony in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37).

Only he and Peter were sent into the city to make the preparation for the Last Supper (Luke 22:8).

At the Supper itself his place was next to Christ on Whose breast he leaned (John 13:23, 25).

According to the general interpretation John was also that "other disciple" who with Peter followed Christ after the arrest into the palace of the high-priest (John 18:15).

John alone remained near his beloved Master at the foot of the Cross on Calvary with the Mother of Jesus and the pious women, and took the desolate Mother into his care as the last legacy of Christ (John 19:25-27).

After the Resurrection John with Peter was the first of the disciples to hasten to the grave and he was the first to believe that Christ had truly risen (John 20:2-10).

When later Christ appeared at the Lake of Genesareth John was also the first of the seven disciples present who recognized his Master standing on the shore (John 21:7).

The Fourth Evangelist has shown us most clearly how close the relationship was in which he always stood to his Lord and Master by the title with which he is accustomed to indicate himself without giving his name: "the disciple whom Jesus loved"

After Christ's Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, John took, together with Peter, a prominent part in the founding and guidance of the Church. We see him in the company of Peter at the healing of the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:1 sqq.). With Peter he is also thrown into prison (Acts 4:3). Again, we find him with the prince of the Apostles visiting the newly converted in Samaria (Acts 8:14) ...

Apparently John in common with the other Apostles remained some twelve years in this first field of labour, until the persecution of Herod Agrippa I led to the scattering of the Apostles through the various provinces of the Roman Empire (cf. Acts 12:1-17). Notwithstanding the opinion to the contrary of many writers, it does not appear improbable that John then went for the first time to Asia Minor and exercised his Apostolic office in various provinces there. In any case a Christian community was already in existence at Ephesus before Paul's first labours there ...

He returned with the other disciples to Jerusalem for the Apostolic Council (about A.D. 51). St. Paul in opposing his enemies in Galatia names John explicitly along with Peter and James the Less as a "pillar of the Church", and refers to the recognition which his Apostolic preaching of a Gospel free from the law received from these three, the most prominent men of the old Mother-Church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9).

Today is the great Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, witnessed by a select few including St John.

The importance of St John in the Church is seen by the fact that the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome (or to give it the full title: the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and of Sts. John Baptist and John Evangelist in the Lateran)is dedicated to amongst others, St John

The Basilica is styled "the head, the mother, and the mistress of all churches". It is the Pope`s episcopal Church. It is of course first dedicated to Christ. Then its co-patrons are Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist jointly. The two saints are not often jointly venerated.

It was Pope Lucius II who dedicated the Basilica to St John the Evangelist in the twelfth century

Here below we see the statue of St John the Evangelist in the Basilica executed as part of a series of twelve (twelve apostles) in the nave. This one was one of three by the Italian baroque sculptor, Camillo Rusconi (14 July 1658 – 1728)

The commission by Clement XI was completed during 1708-1718 and was the major project in the Rome of its time. It set a trend toward neoclassicism.

Camillo Rusconi (1658 – 1728)
St John the Evangelist
Marble, height 425 cm
San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome
Second image from Wikipedia Commons

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