St. John the Evangelist Day
27 December 2013
“As an Entered Apprentice Mason, whence came you? From the Lodge of the holy Sts John at Jerusalem.” It’s a natural response, or at the very least it should be to every one in this lodge. But, what exactly does it mean?
Our continuing travel to the east, in the search for more light never ends with the 3 degrees. As it were, our whole lives are a continuous movement to the east in search of more light. And thus, such is the opportunity we have this evening on the feast day of St. John the Evangelist.
Why did our order adopt him? St John the Evangelist came to our fraternal system somewhere towards the close of the 16th century, at least we find the earliest authentic Lodge minute reference to St John the Evangelist in Edinborough in 1599, although there were a few mentions of him in previous ancestors of the craft of Masonry. For example, there was a fraternity of the “St John” in Cologne in 1430.
“St John’s Masonry” is a distinctive term for Lodges in Scotland. The Lodge of Scoon and Perth is often called the Lodge of St. John.
There are in several old histories of the Craft, a story of St John the Evangelist becoming a “Grand Master” at the age of ninety. This legend has its roots in a book printed in 1789, even though most historians agree what was written was more of a Eulogy than an outright explanation.
Perhaps the real explanation of our fraternal connection with St. John the Evangelist is not found in the history of the Craft, but rather in the history of religion.
The festival day of St. John the Evangelist is actually older than Christianity as it is old as the ancient religions that worshipped the sun and its kindred substitute: fire.
If we step back in time to when Man was but a young creature, learning the ways of the world and how to balance his own needs of shelter, food and water, his need for self preservation vs. continuance of this blood line, we would find a man who was not just a part of the nature around him, but in awe of its seemingly random power over him.
The cold nights, the fear of thunder and lightning, the emotions he was wrestling with including desire, contentment and anger. Out of his cave, he felt alone and naked against the rain and the wind and the cold of the night; powerless against beasts that hunted him. He would have had to think of an Unseen Force guiding these elements together… and perhaps focusing their anger against him for whatever he was doing, or NOT doing.
The greatest of these elements was certainly the Sun. It never failed. It warmed the day; gave his crops reason to grow. Its nearest kin - fire - was a natural nocturnal substitute, as it gave warmth at night and kept away those dangerous beasts that threatened his very existence.
Sun and fire worship was as natural to him as the understanding of why he breathed to stay alive.
Earliest among the facts recognized about the sun must have been its slow travel from North to South and back again as the seasons came and went. And so it would be that on the Midwinter’s day, the shortest day of the seasons, the day where the sun would begin to hang in the sky longer and longer each day, would be the happy sign of a decline in the colder climates and the return of his crops and would herald a new time of warmth and happiness.
Through the countless years, in a thousand religions, cults and mysteries, in a hundred lands and climates, priests and people celebrated the solstice. We know this from the countless stories told through the centuries - handed down from one generation to the next and confirmed with the same stories told the world over, carved in stone.
Ancient custom is divested from a people with great difficulty. In the height of civilization today, we retain thousands of customs of which we have lost the origin through antiquity. We speak freely of Christmas without thinking of an ancient Scandinavian god named Juul. Those who would think it was bad luck to break a mirror never have known the savage belief that casting a stone in water, which mirrors the face of an enemy, will break his heart even as the reflection is broken.
If such ideas persist to this day, imagine then how difficult it would have been for a people to give up a holiday celebration, which their fathers and their father’s fathers before them had kept for untold ages.
So it was when Christianity came to the world. Feasts and festival days of the past were not lightly given up, even by those who put their faith upon a cross. It was no use for the early church to ban a pagan festival. Old habit was too strong and old ideas were too powerful. Hence clever and thoughtful men in the early days of Christianity turned the pagan festivals to Christian usage, and thus the winter solstice became the Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist in the Middle Ages.
As the years passed, those who celebrated thought less and less of what the days really commemorated and became more and more convinced of their new character. Today hardly a Freemason gives a thought to the origin of St. John’s day.
It was common, therefore, for craftsman of all kinds to place themselves under the protection of some saints of the church. Fisherman adopted St. Peter, fabric workers chose the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Holy Lamb or Fleece as an emblem of that trade. The goldsmiths’ patron was St Dunstan represented to have been a brother artisan. The tailors selected St John the Baptist who heralded the Holy Lamb. Many other guilds had the saints John as their patron saints and thus have kept the winter and summer solstices. We as masons are no different in this respect.
To say with certainty why Freemasons adopted the Holy Sts. John, and continue to celebrate the days as principal feasts which were once of a far different significance is not in the power of any historian or student as yet. Further light must be had.
However, the appropriateness of St John the Evangelist is obvious if we consider the spiritual suggestion of his life.
He was a disciple who Jesus loved, a thousand books have been written, and many a student has vied with minister and teacher with historian, to find words, which aptly describe the character of the gentle writer of the 4th Gospel.
Brother Joseph Fort Newton said it aptly: “St John the Evangelist is recognized the world over as the apostle of love and light, the bringer of comfort to the grief ridden, of courage to the weak, of help to the helpless, of strength to the falling.”
There is no historical evidence St. John the Evangelist was ever a member of the Craft. He was adopted as a patron saint after ways of former times. So naturally, there came the idea of a sacred lodge in the Holy City presided over by St John. No such lodge ever existed in fact, and yet it is not a fiction. It is an idea and an ideal and without such our lives would continue to be shrouded in darkness.
Our journey is ever towards the East, back towards the ideal, which seems lost in the hard, real world around us. Still we must continue on, following what we have seen, perpetually trying to find the ideal in the real, or to bring the ideal to the interpretation of the real; which is the whole secret and quest of human life. “He is wise, and must be considered brave, who keeps his memory or vision of the Lodge of the Holy Sts John at Jerusalem.”
So to answer the question, we do not know just when, or how Freemasonry adopted St John the Evangelist. His day is the Christian adaptation of a long and lost pagan festival at a time when man, knowing no better, worshipped the sun as the supreme god. So when we celebrate this festival day, we walk eye to eye and step by step with our ancient ancestors, worshipping as they worshipped, giving thanks as they did; they to the only god they knew and we to the Great Architect of The Universe.
In his old age, St. John was often carried to gatherings of believers, and he would often deliver the same very short sermon, which typifies a major tenet of our Brotherhood and of which I leave you with this evening. “My children, love one another.”