April 2, 2015
John 13: 1-15
Christian Brothers, St. Joseph’s Home, N.R.
“Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end” (John 13: 1).
One way of marking out John’s Gospel is by the Passover feasts. Only in his Gospel do we find 3 Passovers—hence our traditional counting 3 years of his public ministry, which technically would be just a little bit more than 2 years. At the 1st Passover he goes up to Jerusalem and clears the Temple of the merchants and money-changers; near the 2d he multiplies bread and fish and speaks of his body and blood as our food and drink; and we now come to the 3d.
|Last Supper, by Tintoretto|
The 3 Synoptic evangelists speak of just one Passover, this last one of Jesus’ life, and here they situate his institution of the Eucharist with its link to his passion and death: “This is my body, which is given up for you” (Luke 22:19) and “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). John presents a different sort of self-giving of Jesus and a different sacramental sign—having presented the Eucharist to his readers back in ch. 6. Yet the mention of Passover in John hearkens back to that earlier Passover and its Eucharistic discourse, forming a linguistic link, a reminder to us that the Eucharist remains a form of Jesus’ self-giving, a continuing sign of his “love for his own in the world” until the end of time.
Jesus’ hour has come. In the last several days our readings have reminded of this, with the decision of the chief priests that he must die (John 11:47-53), Mary of Bethany’s anointing him for his burial (12:1-7), and Jesus’ discourse to Philip and Andrew about his hour having come, the necessity of the grain of wheat dying in the earth, and his being lifted up to draw all people to himself (12:23-25,32-33). His hour will be both the ultimate expression of his love for “his own” (13:1) and his giving glory to the Father (12:27-28).
“He loved his own in the world,” John says. In the Gospel’s prolog, John told us how the Word of God entered the world to bring light and life and salvation to whoever would accept the Word and thus become “his.” The world is a place hostile to God’s Word, but it’s where God’s people are and so is the place where the Word must come in order to lift up those people—from sin and death and Satan’s power to forgiveness, eternal life, and the Father’s glory. It’s in this real world that Jesus comes to save us thru his flesh and blood, thru his life and death, thru the Church and the sacraments that he has left behind after “passing from this world to the Father.”
“He loved them to the end.” John likes word-play, and this is an example. The phrase could be taken or translated in a temporal sense: “to the end of his life, to his last moments on earth.” His hour in time has come, and he loves his disciples to the bitter end, right thru his passion, the cross, and his surrender of life with the words “It is finished” (19:30). It could also be taken or translated in the sense of “without limit, to the utmost, to the nth degree.” “There’s no greater love than that a man lay down his life for his friend,” as he says to the apostles during this Last Supper (15:13).
Jesus doesn’t express this love by instituting the Eucharist here in John’s Gospel, as we’d expect after reading the Synoptic accounts. Rather, he becomes the slave of the apostles. He gives himself in the most menial service, washing their feet. The one who is the greatest among his disciples is the one who serves the rest; for “the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (cf. Matt 20:27-28). In that spirit, Popes since Gregory the Great have styled themselves “servant of the servants of God” (or “slave of the slaves of God”), and some of them have given good example of self-giving service.
|Washing the disciples' feet|
(Bible of Tbilisi)
So are we all challenged to do, in whatever capacity we can. Jesus, our “teacher and master” (13:13) has given us “a model to follow” (13:15), an example to imitate. By that he doesn’t mean washing one another’s feet per se, but—you understand very well—attending to one another’s needs, caring for one another, serving one another. For some, that means just the service of prayer and suffering offered to the Father as our share in Christ’s “hour,” and for others the practical service of attending to the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of our brothers or others of God’s children. In this context, today might be a good day to express your appreciation for the staff who serve you so diligently here at St. Joseph, perhaps even literally washing those who can’t care for themselves so well anymore.
Simon Peter objects to the Lord’s serving him like a household slave. Jesus chides him, “Unless I wash you, you’ll have no inheritance with me” (13:8). In the 2d Eucharistic Prayer we pray that “we may merit to be coheirs to eternal life”; one of my confreres once wondered what the heck that meant. The 3d Eucharistic Prayer voices a similar idea: that Christ may obtain for us “an inheritance with [the Father’s] elect,” his chosen ones, his saints. We aspire to a share in the kingdom of God alongside Christ, the Father’s Only-begotten Son, as children of God thru Christ’s grace; we aspire to inherit the kingdom with him—to be “coheirs” with him and with all God’s “elect,” his chosen ones, his saints.
And Jesus tells Peter that for that to happen, he must wash him—not only Peter, of course, but all of us. In this hour of his that has come, he’ll wash us with his blood, wash us clean of our sins. His blood washed us once in Baptism, and it continues to wash us in Penance and the Eucharist. “As we drink his blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean,” today’s Preface will proclaim. “Whoever has bathed needs only to wash, and he’ll be clean all over,” Jesus assures Peter (cf. 13:10).
On this day we celebrate the Lord’s commandment of love, exemplified in his service, his self-giving, to his own; we celebrate the institution of his Eucharist, that self-giving perpetuated as “an everlasting sacrifice,” in the words of the Preface; and we celebrate the institution of the priesthood that enables us, too, to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood poured out for us, the priesthood that makes his sacrifice present to us “whenever the memorial of [his] sacrifice is celebrated” so that he might accomplish his redemption also in us (cf. Prayer over the Offerings).