Monday, December 27, 2010

Was John the Beloved assumed into heaven?

There was a very popular tale in ancient times that St. John the Evangelist was assumed bodily into heaven, not merely in the manner of Elijah and Enoch, but after the fashion of Mary. Many believed that St. John’s body was glorified, being perfectly united to his beatified soul, and enjoying the bliss of heaven proper.
St. Augustine had spoken against this myth in his Tractates on the Gospel according to John, but the legend of the assumption of John had persisted even into the fourteenth century, so that Dante also felt the need to correct the myth in his Divine Comedy.
The confusion arises from our Lord’s discussion about the Beloved Disciple with St. Peter in John 21:20-23, specifically, “Jesus saith to him: ‘So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? Follow thou me.’ This saying therefore went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. And Jesus did not say to him: ‘He should not die;’ but, ‘So I will have him remain till I come, what is it to thee?’”

St. John’s appearance in the Divine Comedy
From Canto XXV of the Paradiso: When Dante has finished speaking with St. James, he receives the vision of St. John the Evangelist. Beatrice introduces the Beloved, then the Disciple speaks for himself.
“This is the one who lay upon the breast
Of him our Pelican; and this is he
To the great office from the cross elected.”
My Lady thus; but therefore none the more
Did move her sight from its attentive gaze
Before or afterward these words of hers.
Even as a man who gazes, and endeavours
To see the eclipsing of the sun a little,
And who, by seeing, sightless doth become,
So I became before that latest fire,
While it was said, “Why dost thou daze thyself
To see a thing which here hath no existence?
Earth in the earth my body is, and shall be
With all the others there, until our number
With the eternal position tallies.
With the two garments in the blessed cloister
Are the two lights alone that have ascended:
And this shalt thou take back into your world.”
While Dante seeks to see the matter of John’s body passing in front of the glory of his soul – after the fashion of the moon eclipsing the sun – the Evangelist explains that his body is “earth in the earth” and that only his soul is in heaven. In other words, St. John is truly dead, his soul separated from his body – his body awaits the general resurrection. Moreover, St. John tells Dante that only two bodies are now in heaven, “the two lights alone that have ascended” – these, of course, are the bodies of Jesus and Mary. But what of Enoch and Elijah (and perhaps Moses)? We will discuss them at the end.
St. Augustine corrects the legend
In the 124th Tractate of his Commentary on John, St. Augustine discusses a similar legend about the Beloved Disciple. It seems that a myth had grown up according to which John was not really dead and had never really died, but was only asleep in his tomb – hence the Lord said, “So I will have him remain till I come.” There was even a rumor, supported by what St. Augustine calls “not unreliable witnesses,” that the ground in Ephesus where St. John was buried would rise and fall as though someone were breathing, or even snoring.
In this final homily on John’s Gospel, St. Augustine insists that the Beloved Disciple has indeed died and that his body lies dead in the ground. What is also most interesting, St. Augustine discusses the question of Moses’ death as well – since many in his time, and not a few today even, held that Moses’ body was not dead in the ground but had been re-united to his soul. The principle text regarding the state of Moses body is the Transfiguration, since Moses seems to appear in his proper body to witness to the Christ. St. Augustine maintains Moses’ body was temporarily re-united to his soul, for the time of the apparition, but that it was separated again immediately afterward and returned to the dust (hence, Moses rose and died again). It is good to note, none have been so bold as to claim that either Moses’ body or Elijah’s have yet been glorified – I have written on this question here.
Tractate 124 is quite simply the greatest homily ever given on St. John’s Gospel – in it, St. Augustine contrasts the active and contemplative lives by comparing John and Peter. If you have not yet taken the opportunity to read it, you can find it here.
What about Enoch and Elijah?
The bodies of Enoch and Elijah have indeed been “taken up,” but they do not yet enjoy complete beatitude, they have not yet been glorified. If by “heaven,” we mean some place “up there” or “out there,” we can say that the bodies of Enoch and Elijah are “heaven” – meaning that they are not on this earth, but have been taken away to some other place, we know not where. However, when we speak of “heaven,” we usually mean the state of eternal bliss, complete union with God – in this sense, the bodies of Enoch and Elijah are not in heaven; only the bodies of Jesus and Mary are there. [as to the question of whether a body can be in heaven, since heaven is not primarily a place, please consider my earlier article on Mary’s Assumption – simply put, heaven is a place insofar as considered in relation to the two bodies of Jesus and Mary, but there is no “containing place” or “region” of heaven]
Both Enoch and Elijah enjoy beatitude of soul, hence we must admit that their soul’s are “in heaven,” insofar as they enjoy the vision of God. Nevertheless, though their souls are still united to their bodies – they have not yet died – their bodies do not enjoy the perfect beatitude which will be given in the resurrection of the dead. The bodies of Enoch and Elijah have not yet been glorified, this is a grace given only to Jesus and Mary. Thus, we say that Enoch and Elijah are in heaven in regard to their souls, but are in a sort of “paradise” in regard to their bodies.
Why did Jesus say that John would remain?
Jesus said this not as speaking of John in his proper person, but of the life which John symbolized – the contemplative life. The contemplative life (as opposed to the active life) will remain, for it is already a participation in the life of heaven. The active life, on the other hand, is of this world and will pass away together with this world. When we die, the active life ceases completely; but the contemplative life is brought to perfection in heaven. This is the interpretation given by St. Augustine, it was highly influential on St. Thomas’ discussion of the active and contemplative lives in ST II-II, qq.179-182.

St. John the Evangelist, pray for us!


Nick said...

"So I will have him to remain till I come"

I read this in light of the Book of Revelation, that Jesus was speaking of His appearing to Saint John to reveal to him what was happening and what was to happen.

Anonymous said...


You have a fairly developed position that "the bodies of Enoch and Elijah are not in heaven" - one that I've never heard before. What is your source for that belief? Or if you don't have a direct source, what theological considerations led you to that conclusion?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (9:16pm)
What I mean to claim is that their bodies are not glorified...hence they are not in the state of beatitude which is heaven. They are certainly not in the earth, they are still united to their souls, they are alive, they are in some sort of paradise (it would seem), but not in heaven proper.

I do not know whether their bodies are in this universe or in some other place, what I do know is that they are not buried in the earth, and they are not glorified, and they are in some containing place (whereas the bodies of Jesus and Mary are most likely outside all containing place, completely outside of the universe, in glory).

A simple source for this is the Catechism which says that Mary's Assumption is "a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection." (CCC 966) Which means that no one other than Mary and Jesus have resurrected and glorified bodies.

The tradition has always held that Enoch and Elijah were taken up, but not glorified...their bodies will be glorified at the end of time.
See my earlier article, where I deal with some of these issues:

Also St. Augustine's last Tractate (which is linked in the article).

St. Thomas talks about this a little in ST III, q.45, a.3, ad2 -- Elijah came down not from the "empyrean heaven" (i.e. heaven proper), but from some other place.

I hope that this helps somewhat.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick, I like that reflection. Certainly a possible interpretation!

Unknown said...

Something that has puzzled me for some time now is the quesiton of how Enoch and Elijah(Moses?) were assumed into heaven before our Lord's Passion and Resurrection? As I understand it, no one was saved by the law and since these prophets lived before Christ's sacrifice and heaven was closed to those under the law of the old covenant, how could they enter heaven and "enjoy the vision of God" still in a state of original sin.
God is not limited and can do what He wills. Could this case be similar to the Imaculate Conception whereby the benefits of the resurection were experienced before they actually took place in time?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are quite right, no one entered heaven until after the Resurrection of Jesus.
Hence, it is clear that Enoch and Elijah were not taken up into heaven proper (i.e. the glory of Vision), but into the "heavens" meaning the upper regions. I do not know where their bodies are now, I suppose in some other universe -- certainly, not in/on earth.

After the Resurrection, Enoch and Elijah received the Beatific Vision and enter heaven in their soul, but their bodies have still not yet been glorified (hence they are not yet in "heaven proper").

This is obviously highly speculative and there are many options here. But we do want to maintain that only Jesus and Mary have their bodies glorified -- and that no one was saved before the Resurrection.

Christmas blessings!

Anonymous said...

Has anyone discussed Enoch and Elijah as (possibly) now enjoying the Beatific Vision in their flesh analogously with St. Thomas's discussion regarding Our Lord's enjoyment with respect to His Humanitas during His earthly life?

Happy Feast of the Holy Innocents!


Capreolus said...

Doesn't St. Thomas himself make mention of this opinion--St. John the Evangelist's bodily assumption--in the Summa?
All the best,
Fr. Capreolus

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@David (anonymous, 11:49pm),
I do not think that it is likely that Enoch and Elijah now have glorified bodies, because Mary's Assumption and the glorification of her body are considered a "singular" privilege (by CCC 966). Christ and Mary are the "first-fruits" of the Resurrection and then the rest (cf. 1 Cor 15:23)

Blessings to you!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Capreolus,
On this point, I have perhaps done some injustice to Thomas...

I don't know about the Summa, but in his Commentary on John he very clearly states that he believes that after the Evangelist died, he was assumed into heaven (whether or not his body is glorified is left open)... cf. Com in Io. 2647: "We should say that he died and arose with his body indicated by the fact that his body cannot be found."

This opinion is also held by St. Ambrose and Peter Damian. However, Cornelius a' Lapide mentions that the Council of Ephesus ordered that the relics of John the Evangelist be collected (among those of other saints), but some will say these were only second class relics.

The real problem is that there seem to be no relics of John...hence, some believe that his body was taken up...

Lapide seems to indicate that he beleives that John's body is buried somewhere in the earth (hidden away somewhere), but he does finally say: "Be this as it may, it is not possible at the present time to find any other relics of the body of St. John."

So, I suppose there is some real question here...

However, the relics of Moses' body have never been found, but we still don't usually think that he was taken up bodily into heaven (though some Jews do believe this).

I hope that I have done some justice to the question... There is indeed a great deal of room for speculation in this regard...though I am quite convinced that John's body is at least not yet glorified.

Blessings, and thanks for the comment!

Bernardus said...

Blessings and Peace to you Fr. Reginaldus.
A couple of things strike me when reading your commentary and going between other texts (St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Catena Aurea: John, The Navarre on John). One, in the Navarre it is noted that St. John does not mention the Transfiguration though it is explained that he may not have owing to the existence of the other Gospels. Still, I find that an interesting point. Two, there is the juxtaposition of St. Peter and St. John in this gospel passage being explained by Augustine and Thomas as active or contemplative. The Navarre expands this with Augustine who said St. John "soared beyond the flesh...beyond...the very reason of his thinking soul...beyond his very self,..." Pehaps St. John's purity of body and soul allowed him to be taken up to await Christ's coming. Look how he is placed at the cross with Mary...behold your son...behold your mother. I don't know, but all causes me to ponder, contemplate, these deep mysteries. You certainly help stir the soul to search beyond just mere words. I do wonder what counsels as Garrigou-Lagrange, Prosper Geranger or Columba Marmion would offer.

You are continually in my prayers. Please pray for me.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Indeed there is great diversity of opinion in this matter...what are we to do?
On the one hand there is St. Augustine and Dante, who say that John's body is in the earth. On the other, there is St. Thomas (and perhaps Lapide) saying that John's body has been taken up...
Dom Gueranger concludes with Dante and Augustine (and the "general opinion of the Holy Fathers") that John's body is in the ground somewhere.

Ultimately, while I hate to differ from St. Thomas, I have to say that it would seem safer to conclude that John's body is in the earth; for it would seem that we ought not to posit such a great grace (of assumption to heaven) without clear witness from either Scripture or Tradition...and here we have received no clear witness. Hence, I maintain, as the most probable opinion, that St. John is dead and his body is in the earth -- following St. Augustine, Dante, Dom Gueranger, and many other Fathers and Doctors.

By the way, you have a very good reading list (from Augustine, to Thomas, to Garrigou-Lagrange, to Marmion, to the Navarre, et al.)!

Peace to you in Christ!

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