Gospel Reflection: John 13:1-15
Reading the Gospel according to John, we are surprised that the institution of the Eucharist referred to by the other evangelists is not narrated. This gap becomes even more remarkable when we consider that John devoted one quarter of his Gospel; an entire chapter (Jn 6) and the story of the Last Supper to (Jn 13–17) to the theme of “Bread of Life.” How come he has not hinted at the most important fact in these five chapters? It was not an oversight. The omission is deliberate and, if we consider the incident only he narrates, we understand the goal John wants to achieve.
In lieu of the institution of the Eucharist, he inserted the washing of feet, which the other evangelists ignore, but which for him is of paramount importance. With this substitution, he wanted to make it clear to the Christians of his community that the Eucharist and the washing of the feet, to some extent, are interchangeable. They are intertwined and can be understood only if one is related to the other.
The washing of the feet clarifies the meaning of the breaking of the bread. It highlights what it entails for the disciple to enter into communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
The introduction of the story is solemn. It starts with the indication of time: Easter was fast approaching. It is the feast that celebrates the passage from slavery to freedom. Jesus is about to realize his Easter. Now is the time of his departure, the transition from this world to the Father. He must plunge into the deep and dark waters of his passion and death to trace the path that will introduce all people to the land of freedom.
After recalling Easter, the hour is mentioned, that mysterious hour which John has already referred to several times in his Gospel.
The first stroke rang out at Cana when Jesus said to her mother: “My hour” (Jn 2:4) has not yet come. Later, in Jerusalem, other chimes were heard: no one has managed to get their hands on Jesus “because his hour had not yet come” (Jn 7:30; Jn 8:20). A few days before his Passion, Jesus announces that the hour is approaching: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…. Now my soul is in distress. Shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour? But I have come to this hour’” (Jn 12:23,27).
It’s the time he awaited most, the one in which, having immensely loved his own, the opportunity is offered to him to give the highest proof of his love with the gift of life.
After alluding to the dinner and to Judas—the disciple who, driven by the Devil, was about to deliver the Teacher to the high priests, the text continues in a very solemn way: “Jesus knew that the Father had entrusted all things to him, and as he had come from God, he was going to God” (v. 3).
Why this emphasis of words? The reference to Jesus’ authority, his divine origin, his final destiny seems excessive to introduce an apparently trivial washing of feet. The text would be redundant if one does not realize the revolutionary significance of the gesture made by Jesus. For John, his action is of exceptional importance: the one who is going to stoop to the level of the slave is none other than the Lord, the Only-Begotten; in seeing him, we see the Father (Jn 14:9).
Before and during the ritual meals, the pious Israelites used to make an ablution with water.
At the head of the table, hands were washed by a servant or by the youngest of the guests. At the Last Supper, something unheard of happens. In the mind of the evangelist the fact remained clearly and indelibly engrained, remembered in all its minutia. Under the astonished gaze of the disciples, Jesus rises from the table, lays aside his garments, takes a towel, girds it around his waist; then pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel he was wearing.
Everything takes place in silence. The disciples are silent: the scene they are witnessing is so amazing, leaving them stunned. They do not believe their eyes: Jesus takes off his clothes—as do the slaves—and does not wash the hands, but the feet. He subjects himself to such a humiliating gesture that Jews, even though enslaved themselves, refused to perform it in order not to dishonor their people.
Jesus does it: he, God.
The astonishment of the disciples is understandable: they lived for three years with Jesus, recognized him as the Christ and are impatiently waiting for him to bring the Scriptures to completion. They learned that the Messiah “reigns from sea to sea … his foes are crushed before him … all kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him” (Ps 72:8-11).
Now, in the upper room, their hopes of glory fade, mercilessly demolished by the scene that is slowly taking place under their eyes. At the Last Supper, the God “who dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14) has shown his cards and his true identity. In the washing of the feet of the disciples, they have been able to read, loud and clear, his profession: not master, but “slave.”
It’s impossible to imagine a more surprising revelation of God. Yet this God-servant is the only true One; all others are idols created in the human mind or imagination. Now, we begin to see the reason for the importance that John has given to this episode.
Washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus has forever destroyed the image that people had made of God: the great sovereign God sitting on a throne; the God who claims worship, respect, acts of submission from the subjects; the God who demands obedience and respect is otherwise indignant reacting with reprisal and punishment; the dominating God who destroys those who dare to stand against him.
Jesus makes present a God with a completely different face. It is the God who kneels before man, his creature. He places man on a pedestal while He—the Almighty—bows down to serve. This is the only God in which we are invited to believe. Take it or leave it!
Faced with this dizzy scene, the grotesque and pathetic competitions we may indulge in to have the hand kissed, be bowed to, be addressed with honorable titles or receive awards are revealed. Conflict for higher positions is petty.
Peter understands that the Master is introducing into the world a principle that messes up all the patterns dictated by common sense, distorts all criteria of judgment welcomed as logical by people. He cannot admit that the superiors, the most gifted, one who, with full merit, can succeed and assume a prestigious position, must be regarded as a servant of the least. He reacts and, on behalf of all, amazingly asks: “Why Lord, do you want to wash my feet?” then he poses a categorical objection: “You shall never wash my feet!”
He cannot accept that the Master performs this gesture. Jesus is not surprised by his inability to understand: the logic of free and unconditional service is as far from the thoughts of people as heaven is from earth. Not surprisingly, it is unacceptable to Peter who—as Jesus has already noted—does not think as God does, but as people do (Mk 8:33). “If I do not wash you, you can have no part with me”—he says. The gesture made by the Master is not a rebuke, nor an invitation to accept as a norm for life. It would be asking too much from a baffled and hesitant disciple.
Jesus does not say: “If you do not agree to wash the feet of the brothers, you have nothing to do with me,” but, “If I do not wash your feet.”
It is Jesus—not Peter—who has to wash the feet. Peter is only asked not to prevent God from revealing his own identity as man’s slave. If he forbids Him, he would not obtain salvation. To be saved, in fact, means letting yourself be freed from the belief that humanizes one who is going up, who is dominating, and who is making one serve.
Those who reject the proposal suggested by the evil one and chooses—as God does—to be the servant of all, are saved. Salvation came to humanity when Jesus fulfilled the descent sung about in the famous hymn of the Letter to the Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God, as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness, and in his appearance found as a man. He humbled himself by being obedient to death, death on the cross” (Phil 2:5-8).
Sin bets on an illusory happiness. The Gospel is good news; it offers blessedness. Against all human logic, Jesus guarantees those who trust his proposal: “You will be blessed.”
Here’s the surprise: the gift of self is the only path that leads to joy. It is the first of the two beatitudes found in the Gospel of John. Jesus will address the second to Thomas: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). Two beatitudes: one for those who practice charity and the other for those who have faith.
READ: Jesus loves his own to the end of his life and to the end of the possibility to love. He washes the apostles’ feet and tells them to do likewise. Otherwise, they will not share in his heritage.
PRAY: Pray for perseverance. Pray for all those who once believed and have abandoned belief.
REFLECT: For centuries, washing of the feet was practiced as one of the sacraments, a visible sign of invisible reality. Performed by Jesus, this sign of hospitality reveals the little-known dimension of God who performs and does the service. If we reject this dimension, we cannot have part in Him. If we accept it, we are challenged to imitate Him. Blessed are we if we grasp the meaning of love as service till the end.
ACT: Perform some humble service for another, especially someone who is dear to you.