Today we read John’s recounting of the Last Supper. It is important to remember when reading John that his Gospel was written last and that he likely had read one or more of the other synoptic Gospels. Thus, John writes with at least the partial purpose of filling in some of the blanks.
John begins by again telling us that the “feast of the Passover” was at hand. Next we see Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples ‘feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
There are two important aspects of this scene that are often missed. First, the laying aside of the garment is symbolic of the laying aside of Jesus’ earthly life. The “covering” of his human life is being put aside and his true nature and purpose is to be fully revealed. Second, the washing of the feet harkens back to Exodus 40 where Aaron washed before entering the tent of meeting to become a priest. Washing is a symbol of ordination to the Priesthood.
Peter, ever bold and obstinate, can’t bear to see the Lord lower himself to such a task:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
Jesus again teaches Peter the lesson he has taught him so many times. The lesson we all must learn. To be a disciple means to participate with Jesus ON HIS TERMS. Failure to do so means you do not really participate with him.
Then comes this curious exchange:
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. …”
This is believed to be a reference to Baptism and that the Apostles at some point had been baptized (even though the event is not specifically recorded in scripture). One who is bathed (baptized) does not need to wash – to clean the whole self – because they have been born anew (on the inside). However, they still need to wash their feet because sin, still clings to us. We need constant polishing but do not repeatedly need fundamental renewal.
Then there is a second reference to Priesthood and the mission of the Apostles:
For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
So the Apostles, are to be our teachers, setting the example and shepherding the faithful. To complete this task, Jesus gives them true authority. In ancient times the concept on an Apostle was similar to that of an Ambassador today. They come, with the authority of the one who sent them, to speak on their behalf:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
Finally, Jesus give the new commandment. We all know it well.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
But what does “to love one another” really mean? The best explanation I have ever read, I actually read in a book called The Story of a Soul, which are the memoirs of a nun. Written in 1897, The Story of a Soul is perhaps the most widely read spiritual biography in history. When her relics toured France (where she lived) and Ireland (who adopted her cause) it is estimated that 9 of every 10 people in the entire country attended. Known as the “Little Flower”, Saint Therese of Lisieux entered the Convent at age 15, after traveling to Rome and asking the Pope directly for permission to enter early. She lived only until age 24 and wrote the book at the instruction of her mother superior as she became too sick to work. A simple girl, her spirituality, known as the “Little Way” is now counted as one of the greatest works of theology in history. She explains:
Among the countless graces I have received this year, perhaps the greatest has been that of being able to grasp in all its fullness the meaning of charity. I had never before fathomed Our Lord’s words: “The second commandment is like the first: Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” I had striven to above all to love God, and in loving him I discovered the secret of those other words, “Not everyone that sayeth to me: Lord, Lord!! shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father.” Jesus made me understand what this will was by the words He used at the Last Supper when he gave his “new commandment” and told His apostles “to love one another as He had loved them.” I began to consider just how Jesus had loved his disciples.
I saw it was not for their natural qualities, for I recognized they were ignorant men and often preoccupied with earthly affairs. Yet He calls hem His friends and His brethren. He wants to see them near Him in the kingdom of His Father and to open this kingdom to them He wills to die on the Cross, saying: “Greater love than this no man hath, than a man lay down his file for his friends.”
As I meditated on these words of Jesus, I saw how imperfect was my love for the other nuns and I knew that I did not love them as Jesus loves them. But now I realize that true Charity consists in bearing with all the defects of our neighbor, in not being surprised at his failings, and in being inspired by his least virtues. Above all; Charity must not remain shut up in the depths of the heart, for “no man lights a candle and puts it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house”. It seems to me that this candle represents the Charity which ought to enlighten and make joyful, not only those who are dearest to me but, “All who are in the house.”
O Jesus, I know You command nothing that is impossible. You know how weak and imperfect I am, and you know only too well that I could never love the other nuns as You love them if You Yourself did not love them within me. It is because You wish to grant me this grace that You have given a new commandment. How I cherish it, for it assures me that it is Your will to love in me all those whom You command me to love.
-Saint Therese of Lisieux, in her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul”.
Saint Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.