Sunday, December 27, 2009

Saint John: The man Jesus loved?

Christ the Bridegroom, Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, © 1985.
Acrylic and gold leaf, 18” x 12.” Courtesy of (800.699.4482)

Many believe that John the Evangelist was Jesus’ “beloved disciple” -- and possibly his gay lover. His feast day is today (Dec. 27).

John was an apostle of Jesus and is the presumed author of the Biblical Gospel of John, Book of Revelation and Epistles of John.

Reputable Bible scholars have explored the controversial idea that Jesus and John were lovers. An excellent analysis is included in “The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament” by Theodore Jennings, Biblical theology professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. He finds the evidence “inconclusive” as to whether the beloved disciple was John, but it leaves no doubt that Jesus had a male lover.

“A close reading of the texts in which the beloved disciple appears supports the hypothesis that the relationship between him and Jesus may be understood as that of lovers. As it happens, both Jesus and the beloved are male, meaning that their relationship may be said to be, in modern terms, a ‘homosexual’ relationship,” Jennings writes (p. 34).

The love between John and Jesus is illustrated in the icon above, “Christ the Bridegroom,” by Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar known for his innovative icons. Author-priest Henri Nouwen, famous but struggling with a secret gay identity, commissioned it in 1983. He asked for an icon that symbolized the act of offering his own sexuality and affection to Christ. Research and reflection led Lentz to paint Christ being embraced by his beloved disciple John, based on an icon from medieval Crete.

“Henri used it to come to grips with his own homosexuality,” Lentz said in an interview for my book “Art That Dares,” which includes this icon and the story behind it. “I was told he carried it with him everywhere and it was one of the most precious things in his life.” Nouwen’s goal was celibacy and he did not come out publicly as gay before his death in 1996. The icon takes the Biblical theme of Christ as bridegroom and joins it to the medieval motif of Christ with St. John. The resulting image expresses their intimate friendship with exquisite subtlety.

I also wrote about John as the beloved disciple in my novels “Jesus in Love” and “At the Cross.” I consider John to be one of the gay saints.  In honor of John’s feast day, I post this scene from “Jesus in Love: A Novel.” Jesus, the narrator, remembers the day he met John:

I became distracted by the not unwelcome presence of somebody standing close behind me, closer than necessary in the loosely packed crowd. I sensed that it was John, and spun around to see him planted there like a tall cedar tree. He leaned against me, eyes flashing. “I can’t wait for the Messiah to come. I’ve seen him in visions.”

“Really? Tell me what you remember.” It was exciting to find someone who was aware of God’s efforts to communicate.

“The Messiah is like a gentle lamb who sits on a throne with a rainbow around it. And yet his eyes flame with fire, and a sharp sword comes out of his mouth to strike down evildoers.”

“The truth is large,” I said.

“Are you saying my vision isn’t true?” he challenged.

“No, I’m not saying that. I expect that you will see more.”

When John smiled, his faced crinkled into a fascinating landscape of wrinkles. His eyes felt black and mysterious like the midnight sky as they roamed over me. “Do you want a prayer partner tonight?” he asked.

If anyone else had asked, I would have said no, but I looked again at John’s handsome, bejeweled soul and his long, sinewy body.

“Sure,” I agreed impulsively.

Only then did I notice that the Baptist had finished preaching. John steered me toward the caves where the Baptist and his inner circle of disciples lived. Lower-ranking disciples were ready with water vessels and towels to assist everyone with ritual purification before we ate a spartan meal of locusts and wild honey. One of them approached me.

“Wash up, and we’ll get together after supper,” John said as we parted.

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Icons of Christ the Bridegroom, John the Evangelist and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


C.W.S. said...

Given the debate over the identity of the beloved disciple, I have to wonder whether those who champion Mary Magdalene are not, in fact, looking at the scriptures through a feminist lens, but are only trying desperately to keep Jesus straight.

Terence Weldon said...

One go a lot further than just John. As C.W.S has noted, there are also serious claims for Mary Magdalene, and for Lazarus.

This raises questions in turn about the centrality of monogamy, or even of a single, stable sexual identity. Do we dare to think of Jesus as bisexual and "promiscuous"?

When we extend our consideration to that of all three persons in the Trinity and their inter-relationships, with each other and with other, we quickly come to an image of what Marcella Althaus-Reid describes as the "promiscuous orgy" of the Trinity - a mind-bending concept indeed.

Thanks for the post, and the image.

Trudie said...

Having just re-read "Jesus in Love" and "At the Cross" for the third or fourth time, I am again amazed and thrilled at how you handle ALL these possibilities, Kitt, and indeed meld them into a meaningful discussion of Christ as the Bridegroom of every believer individually, and of the Church as a corporate entity. And since I am also re-reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's "The Divine Milieu", I'm even more deeply moved by the overlap between his ideas and yours. The Holy Spirit is indeed at work!

KittKatt said...

Yes, CWS, I agree that it’s “wishful thinking” on the part of some heterosexuals to think that the beloved disciple is Mary Magdalene instead of a man. As a woman, it does appeal to me to believe that Mary Magdalene was a powerful apostle and perhaps even Jesus’ lover. But I think the evidence points toward the beloved disciple being a male.

Terence, you raise an intriguing idea by questioning whether Jesus was monogamous. As the embodiment of God, he surely loved everyone, and that must have made monogamy a challenge. I tried to address that in my “Jesus in Love” novels, in which Jesus has bisexual feelings.

Thank you, Trudie, for saying that I did succeeding in “melding ALL the possibilities” in my “Jesus in Love” novels. Bless you for rereading the books so many times! Another reader did describe them as “mind-bending,” the same term that Terence used in his comment here.

I reread parts of “The Man Jesus Loved” by Ted Jennings to prepare this post, and he makes a strong case that there was one single “beloved disciple” to whom Jesus was especially attached.