JANUARY 12, 2002, FEAST OF ST. AELRED, HOMILY: JOHN -21-30
THE FRIEND OF THE GROOM WHO ATTENDS HIM HEARS HIS VOICE AND REJOICES FOR THE GROOM. As we learn in this passage, John the Baptist thought of himself as the friend (philos) of Christ, whom he recognizes as the beloved of the Father and spouse of the true Israel. This word 'friend' has a distinguished ancestry in the Bible. Ever since it was applied to Abraham in his relation to God: one of the highest distinctions any one could receive was to be known as a Friend of God, amicus Dei as we read in the Book of Judith:
And now brothers . . . raise up their hearts they they might be mindful that our fathers were tempted that they might be tried whether they truly honored God They ought to be mindful how our father Abraham was tested and proved through many tribulations, and in this way was made a friend of God.(Vulgate 8:22)
He attained to this eminence by virtue of his obedient and trusting faith. Moses too is depicted as a friend of God in that he spoke with God familiarly, face to face. In the case of John the Baptist, it was a matter of immediate sympathy that seems to have given rise to the close and strong tie that united him to the Lord. This sharing of feeling, which is the literal meaning of the word sympathy, was felt on both sides, for Jesus himself expressed the highest admiration of John when questioned about him. 'No one born of woman is greater than John the Baptist', he exclaimed (Mt.11: 11). The source of this friendship was the Spirit of God as John himself affirmed openly.
And John gave witness saying 'I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven and he remained upon him. And I did not know him but the one who sent me to baptize in water, he said to me 'The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain on him, he it is who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.' And I saw and I have born witness that this is the Son of God (John 1:32-34).
This spiritual friendship had rather little opportunity for the kind of association and sharing that is usual in friendships. But it exemplifies the essence of that kind of relationship in a striking if severely austere fashion. For before long John was to lay down his life in the carrying out of his mission. His fidelity to the same Spirit that revealed to him the Son of God was of a piece with the bonds of charity that united him with the Savior who takes away the sin of the world. Later on the Lord himself was to invite his closest associates to become more than disciples; they were also to be his intimates. "I will no longer call you servants but friends", he assured them at the Last Supper. (John 15:15) He indicated a very practical norm for increasing their attachment to him. Living by it they would be numbered among his friends. It is a norm that applies as much to us today: "You are my friends if you do what I command you".
The love of friendship includes in its essence a knowledge of the other and has as its primary concern the best interests of the beloved, not one's own advantage or satisfaction. St. Aelred, the twelfth century abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx whose feast we celebrate today, had a keen appreciation of the nature of true love and its expression as a selfless, spiritual relationship. He also understood that while such friendship comprised a very human affection, it was true only in so far as it was chaste and selflessly concerned for the true good of the friend. Many benefits, to be sure, derive from such a personal sharing as friendship evokes, not least of which is the enhanced desire to prove worthy of the trust shown by one's friend. Aelred, even equated friendship with wisdom, and with sound reason But his friend, the young novice, Yvo, is at first perplexed by this affirmation, but upon hearing further explanation suddenly gets a fresh insight that, arguably, represents the high point of all that has been written on the subject of friendship. He states sit in the dialogue form that considers best adapted to this subject.
That friendship cannot even endure without charity has been more than adequately established. Since then in friendship eternity blossoms, truth shines forth, and charity grows sweet, consider whether you ought to separate the name of wisdom from these three. Yvo. What does all this add up to? Shall I say of friendship what John, the friend of Jesus, says of charity: AGod is friendship@?Aelred. That would be unusual, to be sure, nor does it have the sanction of the Scriptures. But still what is true of charity, I surely do not hesitate to grant to friendship, since A he that abides in friendship abides in God and God in him. (Aelred of Rievaulz, Spiritual Friendship, 1:.68-70, Mary Eugenia Laker, SSND, tr., Cistercian Fathers Series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI, Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1974) 66..
Let us strive always to remember this teaching that is founded on the words and the example of our Lord himself. God is friendship and it is you he has chosen to be his friend. He does so because he wishes to have you as his partner in an unending dialogue of love that reveals ever more of his beauty and truth that he wishes to share with those who love him with the genuine affection and devotion of true friends. May this Eucharist be for us another tie that binds us to our Lord with the bonds of eternal friendship.