By Patrick Schmadeke
“Early in life, all things seem possible. In mid-life, many things seem probable. Eventually, one thing seems inevitable.” Father John Meier shared these words in class in the fall of 2019, and with his death on Oct. 18, the inevitable came to pass. Father Meier was a world-class biblical scholar. Pope Benedict XVI quoted Father Meier’s work and his multi-volume series, “A Marginal Jew” has been translated into Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French. He was a scholar’s scholar.
Many surely knew his work and the man himself much better than I did. I was lucky to take two courses with him in graduate school, one on the Gospel of John and the other researching the meaning of the titles used to describe Jesus in the New Testament (Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, etc.). He was known for his sudden, pithy statements in class: “The Mass is just like the rest of life. You get out what you put in.” “Volume 2 of A Marginal Jew makes a good doorstop.” “The first words spoken by Jesus in each gospel are not an accident. Like the tenor at the opera, they set the tone.” In light of his passing, I thought it timely to reflect on what I learned from Father Meier’s teaching about John’s Gospel.
It is beautiful to realize the depths to which the author of the fourth Gospel was an artist at work. He was not acting as a court stenographer, capturing every word and deed of Jesus (20:30), but as a conveyer of meaning for future generations. John was a dialectical thinker, intentionally playing with words, meaning, imagery and symbol. John was a storyteller, an evangelist in the true sense.
Consider the play on the words “light” and “dark.” John’s use of these terms is intensely symbolic. From the beginning of the Gospel, the “light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Later, Jesus comments, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12). A character study of Nicodemus brings this literary technique into focus. When Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in the darkness of ignorance, he comes “at night” (3:2). Later, when Nicodemus helps prepare Jesus’s body for burial, John indicates that earlier in the Gospel Nicodemus had visited Jesus “at night” (19:39). Elsewhere, when it becomes clear that Judas would betray Jesus, John writes that Judas “took the morsel and left at once. And it was night.” Read that verse with a cadenced baritone voice in mind. The words come alive.
Another example is the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, which is unique to John’s Gospel (18:28-40). This scene is about power and kingship. Pilate moves between conversing with Jesus inside the praetorium and outside to interact with the crowd. Implicit is the darkness of the praetorium, contrasting with the morning light (v 28) outside. The light of the world, the source of all truth is inside the darkness of the praetorium, while those who remain in the light outside are in the darkness of ignorance.
Following the conversation about power and kingship, Pilate unwittingly enthrones Jesus on the cross. Unique to John’s Gospel is the sign hanging upon the cross, which reads, “Jesus the Nazarene the King of the Jews,” written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (19:19). These were the three languages of the known world. As Father Meier put it: “the light of the world blazes upon the candelabrum of the cross before the whole world, and the whole world comes to him.”
The resurrection which follows is set against the backdrop of Jesus’ victory over death in the raising of Lazarus. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb he is still wrapped in burial cloth (11:44). Bound by the powers of death, Lazarus will need the burial cloths again. At the resurrection of Jesus, the burial cloths are left behind in the tomb (20:6-7). Jesus will no longer need them — he has gone through death into eternal life. When Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, “it was still dark” (20:1). Moments later she would meet the risen Lord, the light of the world.
The empty tomb of Jesus comes not as the answer, but as the question. Death and resurrection are a single, two-sided event. The author of John’s Gospel is clear about his purpose: that you may believe, and through that belief, you may have life (20:31). The work of a biblical scholar is similar: to participate in the work of the Son, making God known (1:18). Father Meier did that. He did it very well. Through God’s mercy and fidelity in the Word made flesh, he shares in the light of heavenly glory (1:14).
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)