Origen points out that in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples after they have eaten. This appears to be out of sequence, because washing is supposed to happen before eating. The spiritual sense of this washing after having eaten is worth investigating. Peter’s reaction to this washing makes more sense if we understand how out of place it seems to be. During the mandatum at the Mass of Lord’s supper we have the foot washing before the liturgy of the Eucharist. Imagine if we all went to communion and then had a second foot washing. “That’s enough now! Don’t wash me anymore Lord!” It would seem unnecessary.
At the foot washing we have a sign of purification and a sign of service. As Origen points out, this service of purification is accomplished in a very direct way by Jesus for the lowest member of the body – by a gesture, no longer simply by the words Jesus has spoken.1 On the one hand – with the Fathers of the Church – by this gesture we may certainly understand baptism. On the other hand, as it is a purification that takes place within the supper, within the life giving meal Jesus makes of Himself – flesh and blood – we must understand something deeper than a sacrament of initiation. St. Peter feels humiliated that the Lord should bring this kind of purification to such an intimate moment.
Judas has already left to commit the betrayal, so this purification is something he does not receive. St. Peter and the rest receive it however. Even the spiritual filth that remains in the hearts of Jesus’ friends after they’ve been nourished by His flesh can be purified because they do not break the bond of communion as Judas has done. Spiritually, washing the feet means forgiveness. This forgiveness is given without words, as a gesture, as if to express that even the hidden iniquity that lies beneath our feet, the one upon which we walk and stand daily, the one that we do not root out because it is too massively obscure to appear clearly before our mind, even that sin is forgiven and washed away.
Jesus is not the only one who washes it away: He leaves that washing as a task to His disciples. True communion requires us to humbly accept our poverty and be washed by one another. Judas could not remain in communion because he refused to accept and expose his deepest poverty to the cleansing action of Jesus and his brother apostles. If, superficially, Judas was present for everything else Jesus did, deep down he decided to cover his poverty rather than have it healed. We must learn to trust Jesus and our brothers as they come to cleanse us of the festering wound we could not or did not want to see. We must learn to trust that Jesus wants us to cleanse our brothers: forgiving the faults they seem strangely incapable of admitting or acknowledging.
“When he reports those things done and said by our Lord to his disciples, which we do not find to be mentioned by the others in their books, he wants to show that our Savior did not undergo his passion outside his knowledge and expectation but by his free will. Only when he wanted to did he taste death.… In the same way here, by writing, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father,” he means that he knew exactly the time of his passion and everything that would happen to him.”2
“For inasmuch as the Greek word paschein means “to suffer,” Pascha has been supposed to mean suffering, as if the noun derived its name from Christ’s passion. But in its own language, that is, in Hebrew, Pascha means “Passover,” because the Pascha was then celebrated for the first time by God’s people when, in their flight from Egypt, they passed over the Red Sea. And now, that prophetic emblem is fulfilled in truth when Christ is led as a sheep to the slaughter, that by his blood sprinkled on our doorposts, that is, by the sign of his cross marked on our foreheads, we may be delivered from the perdition awaiting this world, just as Israel was delivered from the bondage and destruction of the Egyptians. We perform a most salutary journey when we pass over from the devil to Christ and from this unstable world to his well-established kingdom.… This name, then, of pascha, which, as I have said, is in Latin called transitus (“pass over”), is interpreted, as it were, for us by the blessed Evangelist when he says, “Before the feast of pascha, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should pass out of this world to the Father.” Here you see we have both pascha and passover. “3
“For I see that these Gospel words may also be taken in a kind of human sense, that Christ loved his own even unto death, so that this may be the meaning of “he loved them to the end.” This meaning is human, not divine, for it was not merely up to this point that we were loved by him who loves us always and endlessly. God forbid that he whose death could not end should have ended his love at death. Even after death that proud and ungodly rich man loved his five brothers. And is Christ to be thought of as loving us only till death? God forbid, beloved. He would have come in vain with a love for us that lasted till death, if that love had ended there. But perhaps the words “he loved them unto the end” may have to be understood in this way, that he so loved them as to die for them. For this he testified when he said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.””4
“Consistently with this you might say of each of those wounded in the heart by the devil, the devil having already put it in the heart of so-and-so that he should commit fornication, and of so-and-so that he should commit fraud, and of so-and-so that, mad for fame, he should submit to the idolatry of those who seem to have rank, and so in the case of the other sins that the devil puts into that heart that is not armed with the shield of faith, by which shield of faith one can quench not one, or two, but all the fiery darts of the wicked one.”5
“Judas was sleeping; therefore he did not hear the words of Christ. Judas was sleeping, yes, sleeping the sleep of wealth since he sought a reward from his betrayal. The devil saw that he was sleeping, yes, buried in the deep sleep of avarice. He let himself into his heart, wounded the horse and threw the rider whom he had separated from Christ.”6
“For before the supper, they had been washed and were altogether clean.41 But after that washing they needed a second water for just their feet, that is, the lowest parts of the body.”7
- cf. Jn. 15:3
- Theodore of Mopsuestia, COMMENTARY ON JOHN 6.13.1. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2007). John 11–21 (p. 82). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 55.1.
- Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 55.2.
- Origen, COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 32.19–20, 24. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2007). John 11–21 (p. 85). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Ambrose, ON THE PATRIARCHS 7.33. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2007). John 11–21 (p. 85). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Origen, COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 32.11–12. Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2007). John 11–21 (p. 86). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.