Thursday, April 9, 2009

A New Commandment I Give You: Love One Another As I Have Loved You

At sunset, Jesus came with the twelve to the upper room, and they gathered around the table. John, being the youngest, asked the question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Jesus told the story of the first Passover, and then they ate the meal described in today’s First Reading: a year old male lamb, slaughtered and roasted, served with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. They ate the meal reclining, not like their ancestors who ate standing up, so that they could leave quickly to escape from slavery in Egypt.

At the end of the meal, Jesus took a round of unleavened bread, broke it into pieces, and said, “This is my body that is given for you. Do this in memory of me.” Then he filled a fifth cup, after the four prescribed in the ritual, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. As often as you drink it, do it in memory of me.” These words are not found in the gospels, but in the first Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Paul concludes, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again.”

In his gospel, John does not mention that Jesus gave us his body and blood during the Seder meal on the night before he died. When the supper was ended, he took off his outer garment, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples’ feet. When it was Peter’s turn, he said, to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus answered, “Unless I do, you will have no part in my inheritance.” Then Peter said, “Then, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!”

This episode, which is found only in John’s gospel, teaches us several lessons. It’s not easy to wash our own feet. When they get dirty they smell bad. It takes effort to raise one foot to the opposite knee so we can reach it. It’s even more difficult to wash someone else’s feet, even someone we love, who can not do it alone.

In today’s gospel, John reminds us that Jesus was aware that the time had come for him to leave this world and return to the Father. Satan had already persuaded Judas to hand him over. Jesus loved his disciples, and now he would show him the full extent of his love.

When Peter stubbornly refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet, he was putting Jesus on a pedestal. It’s one thing to put a statue on a pedestal; that is a sign of respect for the person represented by the statue. But it’s something altogether different when we put a real person on a pedestal. For one thing, it creates distance between us, allowing us to admire them from a distance, rather than following their example. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was giving them an example of humble service; by allowing Jesus to wash his feet, Peter was not only allowing Jesus to exercise humility, but he was allowing himself to learn from Jesus’ example.

When the Lord of the world comes and undertakes the slave’s task of foot-washing, we have a totally different picture. God does not want to trample on us, but kneels down before us so as to exalt us. The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be small. … Only when power is changed from the inside, and we accept Jesus and his way of life, whose whole self is there in the action of foot-washing, only then can the world be healed and the people be able to live at peace with one another.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

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