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. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.” For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
John 13: 1-15
St. John of the Cross
John of the Cross defends those called to serve Christ by remaining in his presence.
“The soul, indeed, lost to all things and won over to love, no longer occupies her spirit in anything else. She even withdraws in matters pertinent to the active life and other exterior exercises for the sake of fulfilling the one thing the Bridegroom said was necessary [Lk 10:42], and that is: attentiveness to God and the continual exercise of love in him. This the Lord values and esteems so highly that he reproved Martha when she tried to call Mary away from her place at his feet in order to busy her with other active things in his service; and Martha thought that she herself was doing all the work and Mary, because she was enjoying the Lord’s presence, was doing nothing [Lk. 10:39–41]. Yet, since there is no greater or more necessary work than love, the contrary is true. The Lord also defends the bride in the Song of Songs, conjuring all creatures of the world, referred to by the daughters of Jerusalem, not to hinder the bride’s spiritual sleep of love or cause her to awaken or open her eyes to anything else until she desire [Sg3:5].
“It should be noted that until the soul reaches this state of union of love, she should practice love in both the active and contemplative life. Yet once she arrives she should not become involved in other works and exterior exercises that might be of the slightest hindrance to the attentiveness of love toward God, even though the work be of great service to God. For a little of this pure love is more precious to God and the soul and more beneficial to the Church, even though it seems one is doing nothing, than all these other works put together.
“Because of her determined desire to please her Bridegroom and benefit the Church, Mary Magdalene, even though she was accomplishing great good by her preaching and would have continued doing so, hid in the desert for 30 years in order to surrender herself truly to this love. It seemed to her, after all, that by such retirement she would obtain much more because of the notable benefit and gain that a little of this love brings to the Church” (C 29.1–2).
In his book On Love, Joseph Piper wrote that love is an act in which one person says to another, “It is good that you are.” In this phrase, the speaker tells his listener that his goodness is not based on any attribute or accomplishment but on the simple fact of his existence. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he was telling them, in effect, that it was good that they were, that they existed apart from whether they could understand his deed or not, or later support him or betray him, he was telling them that it was good that they were.
To a certain extent, he was doing one step better than this. This was because in his day, there were no shoes and as a result a person’s feet got dirty along the way by everything that feel onto the roads. By cleaning their feet, Jesus was bringing them back to their original goodness, the goodness they had before the roads of life made them dirty, and by implication, sinful in the eyes of God. Jesus was saying in effect: “I can make you graceful in the eyes of God again.” He offered them an opportunity to find their original goodness in this very humble and servile act.
Jesus also affirmed his Father. In chapter 17 of the Gospel of John, he told the Father that it was good that he was as he was in the beginning before the creation of the world, as he was then, and will be forever. The word that Jesus used to describe the Father’s goodness was glory. Glory is such a basic aspect of God that it cannot be considered an attribute. In this prayer Jesus asked to be given this glory that he had before the world was created; and he asked that it be given to his followers as well so that they could share in his life with the Father.
You might say that the Gospel of John is a testament to Jesus finding goodness in all people: whether it be the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, the man born blind, or the man by the pool waiting for someone to help him get in, all discovered their basic goodness and reality that they were loveable in God’s eyes.
After his Resurrection, Jesus called his disciples to continue his mission of revealing the goodness each person was created with by God as he did with Peter when he commanded him to feed his sheep three times; and he left room for some to focus on God’s love exclusively as he did with the beloved disciple whose only tasks were to care for Jesus’ mother and wait for his return. You might say that in the Church of John’s Gospel there are two major charisms: to feed the Lord’s sheep, and to await his return in glory. Both make up the Church and contribute to her growth in holiness.
John of the Cross focused on the latter because it was as rare in his day as it is in our’s and it is much more difficult to live as it is easier to explain the former as a form of doing while the latter is a form of being. Still, it must be remembered that for John of the Cross both are forms of loving, both tell God either in works, or in contemplation, that “It is good that you are.” Both involve acts of selflessness and self-emptying to love in order to partake in God’s selfless and self-emptying love in his Son’s Incarnation and Crucifixion.
May our traveling with the Lord at his Last Meal with his disciples enable us to see God’s love for the goodness he has created in us and enable us to share it with others in deeds and prayer.
Lord, God, in your Son’s divestment of his garments to wash the feet of his disciples, you gave us an example of unselfish love in the service of our brothers and sisters. Grant, we ask, that we may practice this same unselfish act of love in our own lives whether we be in prayer or in service. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Adapted from A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. John of the Cross by Fr. George Mangiaracina O.C.D.