St. John the Evangelist
On the twenty-seventh day of this month Freemasons, throughout the world, will assemble to celebrate the festival of one of their patron saints, the loving Evangelist. In the earlier history of the Craft, Freemasons were specially remarkable for their observance of these anniversaries. A hearty appreciation of the full significance attached to them, made the times and seasons, the new moons and the full moons, the solstices and the equinoxes, occasions not merely for the interchange of fraternal greetings, but opportunities for the acquisition of solid Masonic knowledge, and for the cultivation and strengthening of those great precepts of Freemasonry, Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. That the celebration of the festivals of our patron saints, while still very generally observed, has lost much of its value, is as true as it is unfortunate. Nothing can tend more to the diffusion and prevalence of a pure Masonic spirit than the right appreciation of the characters of the two Saints John; nothing can better stir us up to the acquisition of that right appreciation than the due and proper observance of their annual festivals.
Whether the Saints John were really Masons or not has been a subject of controversy, and is still a matter of doubt. Tradition tells us that they belonged to the sect of the Essenes, according to Josephus, one of the sects into which the people of Judea were divided, and among whom it is said, John the Baptist was brought up, acquiring among them that sturdy force of character, and that simplicity of dress and diet for which he was remarkable. Those Essenes were a secret association, by many held to be the same as the ancient Masons who built the temple, but who at this time had become rather a body of philosophers than of operative architects and builders, and in this respect more closely resembling the speculative Masons of the present day. Although less numerous than either of the others, the Essenes were regarded as being quite as much "a sect" of the Jews as the Sadducees or Pharisees. Josephus tells us that they lived the same kind of life as do those whom the Greeks call Pythagorians. They were a distinct brotherhood, holding their property in common for the common good. The same authority tells us that before any one was admitted to the sect, he is obliged to take tremendous oaths, that in the first place he will exercise piety towards God, and observe justice towards men; do no harm to any one, either of his own accord, or by the command of others; that he will always hate the wicked, and be an assistant to the righteous; that he will ever show fidelity to all men, and especially to those in authority; because no one obtains the government without God's assistance; that if he be in authority he will at no time whatever abuse his authority, nor endeavor to out-shine his subjects either in his garments or other finery; that he will be perpetually a lover of truth, and reprove those that tell lies; that he will keep his hand from theft, and his soul from unlawful gains; that he will neither conceal anything from those of his own sect, nor discover any of their doctrines to others. No! not though any one should compel him so to do at the hazard of his life. Moreover he swears to communicate their doctrines to no one any otherwise than as he received them himself; that he will abstain from robbing, and will equally preserve the books belonging to their sect, and the names of their angels or messengers."
The Saints John are said to have been not only members of the Essenian fraternity, but to have been priests and rulers among them; and hence it is, according to some writers, that they became patrons of the order of Freemasonry.
Another writer tells us that under the reign of the Caesars, Freemasonry though surviving, languished; there was no system and but little coherence. At this juncture, our traditions tell us, the fraternity feeling the want of a head, under whom, the Craft might be united, called upon St. John, the Evangelist, to act as Grand Master. He replied, that though well stricken in years, being then over four score years of age, as he had been in early life initiated into the Order, he would consent to serve, and since his day, Masonic Lodges which were dedicated to King Solomon, have been dedicated to the Saints John, both of whom, we learn by our traditions, were patrons of the Order, and hence arises our custom of holding our anniversaries upon the festivals of these two Christian Saints.
According to the more generally received opinion among learned Freemasons, however, among whom we may mention Brother Mackey, the festivals themselves are more ancient than the Christian era. They belong to a period antecedent even to the time when, in the oak forests of Germany and Britain, the old time Druids and Druidesses, presided over similar festivals. According to such writers, these festivals have an astronomical signification, and the symbol of the parallels, with which all Freemasons are familiar, although now generally referred to the Saints John, have a similar origin and signification.
The symbol, as our readers will remember, is the circle bounded by two parallel lines, representing, according to ancient traditions, the limit of the sun's apparent course to the northward and southward of the equator, constituting the winter and summer solstices, or the shortest and longest days of the year. These days fall respectively, upon the 22nd December, and 21st June. Freemasons, professing the Christian religion, being anxious to continue the celebration of those festivals which had become landmarks, and finding that the anniversary of the natal of those two saints fell near those clays, and being desirous to connect their names with an institution, whose delight it was to emulate their virtues, they naturally, by allowing the lapse of a few days, came to celebrate the anniversaries of those two saints, and eventually to adopt them as their patrons.
But important and interesting as are these inquiries to the studious antiquarian in Masonic lore, with Masons generally it is sufficient to know that fn their patron saints, however they came to be recognized as such, we have exemplars whom it is our highest interest and our most bounden duty to' emulate. In St. John the Evangelist, whose anniversary we shall in a few days be called upon to celebrate, we have the very embodiment of love, and of brotherly fellowship. No one can read his epistles without feeling in the presence of a great and loving teacher. How strikingly does he portray the great duty, the first cardinal duty of the Mason, brotherly love. He that with he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goes, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes. And again, This is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Throughout all his writings the same pure spirit is manifested, the same soft, almost womanly affection, that earned for him the well deserved name of the beloved disciple.
But not only do we imbibe from the Evangelist the spirit of brotherly love, we have also the great duty of fidelity, and bold unflinching courage in the maintenance of the right, presented to us in his character. When this holy and intrepid man was singled out by the bloody tyrant Domitian, for proscription and exile, how calmly and boldly did he face his destiny, his spirit undaunted, his spiritual vision undimmed, his faith reaching from earth to heaven, mounting upon the wings of hope to the realms of immortality. His place of exile, the island of Patmos, was just the spot that a cruel mature like that of Domitian would select for the exile home of the good old man. Situated in the AEgean sea, between two continents, it was a picture of sterility and desolation. The winds sang a mournful dirge amid its barren hills. The ocean surge foamed and hissed around its dreary coast. Yet even here the brave, the truly great man improves calamity for his own and his fellow's good. He converted his dreary island home into a temple, wherein became audible to his prophetic ear the voice of the ever living God.
Remote from man, with God be passed his days, Prayer, all his business — all his pleasure praise:
And thence we have those bright visions of a future immortality which are revealed in the revelations of St. John.
How grand an example have we in this truly great and good man. How well entitled was he to be selected as the patron saint of an institution whose highest teachings are but a reflex of his own, whose highest ambition is but to emulate his virtues. How worthy the earnest effort of every man and mason, to follow in the footsteps of the holy Evangelist. When we celebrate the festival of his natal day, may we all remember his bright record, and learn to live more and more to attain to the perfection of his exalted virtues.