Commentary to HOLY THURSDAY
THE TEXT BELOW IS THE TRANSCRIPTION OF THE VIDEO COMMENTARY BY FR. FERNANDO ARMELLINI
Greetings to all, sisters and brothers.
The synoptic Gospels devote few verses to the telling of the Last Supper. The Evangelist John dedicates to the Last Supper 5 chapters, almost a quarter of his work. And these five chapters contain a long discourse that Jesus makes to his disciples. It is important to understand the literary genre of this discourse.
The Bible recalls the last pronounced speeches of famous personages --speeches that they utter at the end of their lives. For example, Jacob gathers all his children in Egypt and addresses each of them to recommend how they should behave in life and promise his blessing to each of them. Moses, too, at the end of his mission makes a long speech where he summarizes the work he has done and recommends to the people fidelity to the Lord. And the same other great characters: Joshua, Samuel.
Also in the Acts of the Apostles we find Paul who gathers the elders of Ephesus at Miletus and presents what he has done in his life, he recommends being faithful to the Gospel which he announced. These speeches are important because it is the testament that these characters leave the people.
The evangelist John uses this literary genre to give utmost importance to the last words that the Lord has left us. We take these words as his will. We know that the last words from a person who has loved are sacred when they leave their last words ... I remember when my father died I was not present. When I got home I asked what had been the last words of my father ... because these words are sacred. No child can forget what the father has left them as his last request.
The evangelist John wants to give these words the highest value and places them as the testament of Jesus. This testament does not begin immediately with the words of the Master. The reading opens with a scene, preserved only by John, which must have left the disciples baffled: the washing of the feet.
Let us pay attention to the solemn mode as the scene is introduced.
"Before the feast of the 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 ..." (Jn 13: 1-3).
The scene of the washing of the feet that precedes the words of Jesus’ last will comprise five chapters of John's Gospel. It is a dinner narrated in a very solemn way by the evangelist First of all, there is the reference to "his hour"—the hour of Jesus. We had already heard of 'this hour' during the wedding at Cana, when responding to his mother, Jesus says: "My hour has not yet come."
The Gospel of John tells us that just a few days before the Passover, Philip and Andrew came to Jesus to tell him that there were some Greeks who wanted to see him. And Jesus responds to the disciples, "the hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.” The time has come for His glory. When we hear talk of 'glory' we immediately think in applause, triumph, but when Jesus speaks of the 'hour' of his glory he refers to the moment when he can finally make it reflect on his face the image of God, the Love that he came to present in this world.
The evangelist continues with this introduction to the scene of the washing of the feet saying: "After having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." The life of Jesus is summed up in a verb: the verb "to love". The whole life of Jesus has been 'love'. And the verb ‘agapàn’ is used here, a verb seldom used in classical Greece—only a dozen times, but it is used 143 times in the New Testament. It indicates the love of God that is unconditional; the love that does not expect something in return, but is done because it is necessary to be loved. And a love without conditions, loving even those who are evil, bad ... because he cannot do otherwise. It is what one makes to make another happy. They are happy seeing that others are happy. This is the love that Jesus came to witness and is what he did throughout his life. The life of Jesus is summed up in this verb: 'He loved his own.' And, therefore, the time has come to love them to the end, that is, to the maximum, beyond which it is impossible to go. One cannot go beyond a manifestation of love that is the donation of life.
And "during dinner, when the devil had already induced Judas to hand him over...". Before this dinner, in the washing of the feet, the evangelist brings to mind the figure of Judas --presenting him as a devil. Devil – dialbolus - is 'dia-balo' - a verb that means 'to place an obstacle'. 'Devil' is everyone who meddles in a message of love between God and humanity. There may be no acceptance - those who do not accept this message of love = these are the 'devil'. Judas did not want to understand the newness of the face of God ... he understood it, but he would not accept it and handed over Jesus to the religious authorities because he wanted to perpetuate the old image of the catechesis of the scribes and Pharisees.
And John purposely brings the presence of Judas because in the scene of the washing of the feet the Master will go on his knees before him who has not accepted this new face of God, this new relationship with God; he has not accepted the proposal of the new man.
Before entering into a detailed description that the evangelist makes of the scene of the washing of the feet, I want to make an observation about the position of the Hebrews on the table during the celebration of the Passover dinner.
They were not seated at the table, as we are accustomed to see in the paintings and pictures, but they were lying down. The verb used by all the evangelists is 'anakeimái' which means lying on the table. What did this gesture mean? It meant that those who were at the table during the celebration of the Passover meal considered themselves free men. The Hebrews took this gesture from the Greeks who in turn took it from the Persians, who already in the sixth century B.C., when celebrating a great victory, a great party, they did not sit at table, but they lie down. After the battle of Platea, therefore in the fifth century, at the time of the Persian wars, the Greeks also began to behave like the Persians--laying down at the table. Then the Romans used these gestures and, later, when the customs were corrupted, not only the men but also the women lay on the table. Among the Hebrews only men lay on the table during this celebration of the Passover supper.
We must therefore imagine the gesture of the washing of the feet keeping in mind the way they were on the table. Therefore, we understand that for Jesus it was easy enough to go around his disciples because the feet were in the right position to be washed comfortably. Jesus could go around all his disciples easily.
And we can also imagine Jesus on the table, not sitting in the middle of the table but probably in the last position, in the angle of the triclinium. We will also see what Jesus does in this introduction to the scene. At some point he will stand on the table and make this gesture on which we are going to reflect. And the evangelist continues this solemn introduction saying: "Fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God ..." Jesus is fully aware of having accomplished His mission. He has come from God and is about to return to the Father.
Sometimes we hear at funerals: ‘Our brother, our sister, returned to the Father.’ It is not very correct. Jesus returns to the Father because he has come from the Father. We 'go' to the father, because it's the first time we go and our situation is different from that of Jesus. He came from God and goes back to God. We, at the end of this earthly life, will go to the Father.
We have, therefore, heard this solemn introduction to this Supper which we are invited to contemplate.
Let's listen to the reading together:
"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 disciple’s feet and dry them with the towel around his waist" (Jn 13:4-5).
We have noticed that the evangelist describes very slowly the scene of the washing of the feet. It seems that he wants to highlight all the particulars about what has happened. He describes the scene with all the details because he wants the gesture made by Jesus to last forever imprinted in the minds of the disciples.
The introduction to this scene concluded by saying that Jesus, knowing that He had come from God and that he was returning to God ... How could we imagine that the story would continue? I think what seems spontaneous to us is to imagine Jesus taking bread, instituting the Eucharist, inviting the disciples to eat of that bread and to drink that chalice. Instead, the evangelist John, unlike the other evangelists, does not narrate the institution of the Eucharist.
And this is very strange because this evangelist has dedicated a chapter, the sixth of his Gospel, to the bread of life, to the Eucharistic bread. Instead of speaking about the institution of the Eucharist, he continues his text, saying that during the supper Jesus got up from the table. And when Jesus makes this gesture to get up from the table there must have been silence in the room because in telling the gesture made by Jesus the gestures happen among the greatest of the surprises of the apostles who do not understand what the Master is doing.
At a certain moment Jesus gets up from the table, then removes his robes. This gesture made by Jesus is represented in the pictures and also in the explanations that are given on this scene of the washing of the feet. But this gesture that the evangelist brings is very important. We know how the Hebrews dressed in the time of Jesus. They wore a loincloth, then a tunic, a belt and then a cloak.
It is important to see how these dresses were called in Greek. The cloak was 'to imateon', the tunic 'ta imatia' and then the 'loincloth'. What is the evangelist saying? He says that Jesus took off 'ta imatia'. Not 'to imateon' the garment that could hindrance him when he washed the feet of the disciples. There is no mention of the 'cloak'. He had already taken it off. He says he took off 'ta imatia' - the tunic and what does this mean? He just kept the loincloth.
Except for modesty ... this gesture is extremely significant and it must have surprised the disciples, who did not understand what the Master was doing, but Jesus was left with only the loincloth. With the clothes of the slaves.
You can see in the background, this sculpture showing the true God. It is not easy to understand that the one who stays in underwear, in the clothes of the slaves, is our God. We continue to imagine God being served, before whom we should bow ... instead here, we are seeing the new face of God that becomes man's slave.
It is not easy to be converted to this image of God, because that is our God ... Let us remain a little silent to look at this God who surprised the minds of the disciples during the Last Supper. In that nakedness the face of God is revealed; on that nudity Jesus will put on the apron—the apron that will not be removed later when he puts on his clothes again, because it is the clothes of the slave which makes him the servant of man. It is the image of our God.
Nakedness dressed as service. This is the spouse's dress. Remember that when Jesus tells the parable of the wedding feast, at one point one enters this wedding party without the nuptial dress. We are wondering: What is the nuptial garment for the Eucharistic banquet?
When we participate in the Eucharist it is the Spouse who asks us if we want to join our life to his. Therefore, we must present ourselves to the wedding feast with the spousal dress and this is what he has dressed. It is the dress of the husband and wife; we should wear the clothing of the slave. If we do not have the habit of the servant, the willingness to give up life at the service of the brethren - our nuptial encounter with Christ is not authentic, it is not true. And we understand that when one does not have this nuptial garment, one does not enter the wedding banquet - we are not part of this proposal of reciprocal love, the exchanging of love is competition, envy… and this is the world where there is 'gnashing of teeth', the old world, not the new world introduced by the Son of God, of the Son who reproduces in himself the image of the Father of heaven, who becomes a servant of man.
After having removed the garment, Jesus is dressed in the servant's clothes—the apron. ‘He tied it around his waist’.... Notice the slowness of the description that must have left the disciples surprised and in silence, who did not understand what Jesus was doing. "Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet..." - without distinction for anyone, who is bigger or smaller. The service of love is the same - all are loved equally by God. "And dried them with the towel around his waist".
This gesture of washing the feet: what was the meaning for the Hebrews? Overall, it was a traditional gesture of welcome to the visitors. We know, for example, and it is recalled in the New Testament, in the first letter to Timothy: the widows entered into this institution which had the early Church which had several characteristics, and one of them was 'washing the feet of the saints', that is, to make themselves available to those in need, including washing their feet.
It was a gesture of humility and servile. In fact, let us remember the rabbinic commentary in the book of Exodus where it was said that the Hebrew slave should not wash his feet of his employer. The Hebrew is not a slave and therefore must refuse to wash his feet. Not that it was necessarily a servile gesture, it was also a gesture that manifested love to the person. For example, the wife should manifest her love by washing her husband's feet; also the children, as a sign of reverence for the father, they could wash their feet.
All these aspects are present in the gesture of Jesus. Jesus is God who shows all his love, also making a humiliating gesture - he does so because he wants to reveal the face of the Father in heaven. After this scene that is described so slowly by the evangelist, we are presented with the reaction of Peter.
Let us listen to the narrative of the evangelist:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean” (Jn 13,6-10).
We have noticed that the scene of the washing of the feet takes place in silence. A silence of surprise. The disciples do not understand what Jesus is doing. At a certain moment, this silence is broken by Peter. When Jesus comes to wash his feet, he addresses the Lord first of all with a question: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Peter realizes that Jesus is turning
the order of values accepted as logical and normal by all. What is the logical and normal order? That the Master, the Rabbi, be served by the disciples who must be proud to wash his feet. Here, on the contrary, Jesus is turning everything around and Peter does not accept this gesture of Jesus. He does not accept it because he has begun to understand that Jesus is reproducing the face of the Lord - the Son of God reproduces the face of the Father in heaven. And Peter feels that all the catechesis that he has assimilated from the rabbis is falling apart, because the God he has always imagined and in whom he has always believed was God served by man, and we saw in the preceding scene how the Son of God presents himself, the one who reproduces the face of the Father in heaven. He presents himself in a disconcerting way, with the dress of the slave.
There is a 'Peter' present in each one of us. It is he who, facing the mystery of God who loves, to the point of kneeling before man, rebels and does not accept that God is a servant, that He become a slave of man, because we are always convinced that man must serve God. Instead, in the face of Jesus, we see a God who is love and who is the servant of man.
I believe that this 'Peter' within each of us wants to preserve an image of God which is not that of the true God. It is the God that the Evil One wants to present, because if we do not cancel this image of God, we will not be in a position to accept this love of the Father in heaven What is the image that Peter had in mind? It is the one that is presented by Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy; Moses says to the people of Israel in a speech to the Israelites: “The Lord your God is the God of gods - the Lord of lords. He is a great, strong, terrible God” (Deut 10,17).
Taken to the letter these words are difficult to compare with this image of God presented by Jesus - who washes the feet of the disciples. Also what the book of Esther says:God is great, magnificent... Or in the book of Judith: The Lord is great, glorious, admirable with his power, invincible ... This is the face of God that Peter has in mind and I think also in the 'Peter' that is present in each of us; that we are trapped by this image of God and we resist to put it in question by the gesture made by Jesus.
Jesus understands this difficulty of changing the image of God and in fact says to Peter: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” when you see the love of which I came to bear witness to—the love of the Father in heaven. It will be at Calvary, when Jesus gives his life. Jesus does not intend Peter to understand right away.
We too can find this difficulty to allow ourselves to be converted to this authentic image of God. Jesus understands this difficulty. And Peter reacts and says to Jesus: "You will never wash my feet.” Jesus replied, "If I do not wash your feet, you will have no part with me." Notice: Jesus does not say to Peter: 'If you do not accept washing the feet of the brothers' ... this Jesus will say later.
Here he is saying: I need to wash your feet, because if I do not go down to this last step, you have nothing to do with me. Salvation, the new world, can only begin if I descend to the last place of service—which will then be the gift of his life on Calvary.
If Jesus does not come to this hour when he can manifest all the glory, all the love of the Father in heaven, the new world does not begin. Jesus is saying to Peter: let me go down to the last place, the servant who washes the feet of the disciples. It is difficult for us to serve others, and also gives us fatigue to allow others to serve us because letting ourselves be served makes us feel that we are not self-sufficient and this humiliates us a little.
We are proud—we want to be self-sufficient. But God did not make us like that. He has done well. He has made us need the gift of the others. Without the encounter with the others and with the gifts that the others can offer we will not fully realize ourselves. And the logic in which God wants us to enter is the free gift, unconditional love - even to the enemy, even to the one who has done us some harm.
It is difficult for us to give for free, and also to let ourselves be loved for free because our logic is that of exchange. And, in fact, when we accept a gift, we ask, 'how can I repay you’ for the gift you have given me? 'Because we want to match the account right away.
This is our logic. Instead, the gift was made to create this imbalance that must remain. If one has made a gift that costs 100 Euros and I pay for it, all the logic of the gift is lost. Instead, this imbalance calls for a response of love. We know it. Let's take the example of the family where we find the logic of the free gift. Among siblings, as a family,services are made without demanding that they be paid back, because there is the logic of love, which regulates relationships.
And notice that when one offers one's own service of love, one does not necessarily receive an exchange of immediate love. This love, many times, manifests itself with others. For example, the gift that parents make to their children, the gift of life, the gift of service they make so that children can grow. It is not necessarily compensated by the children toward the parents, but this logic of love is manifested on the part of the children in a gift of love that they in turn do, educating, growing their own children.
This logic and dynamics of love we see it in a very simple example: If you give me the right of way when I'm driving I feel grateful because I was waiting for some time for somebody to let me in on the route and I am grateful for this gesture that the other made me ... what happens: We are well done it.... We also feel the need to do something for free, not for the one who has given us the right of way, but for any other.
This is the new logic that God wanted to introduce into the world. Not the logic of exchange, but the logic of free love. The one who accepts this logic enters into the dynamic of the love of God that has been revealed in Jesus. In Jesus, this love has been total, unconditional. If we want to enter into this relationship of love with Christ, we too must enter into the logic of love without conditions.
Jesus said to Peter, "If you do not let your feet washed." Peter would want to be the one to give his life for Jesus. But here comes the opposite: it is Jesus who needs to donate his life, otherwise the new kingdom cannot begin, the ancient kingdoms continue, the kingdom of the beasts. Peter reacts by saying, "Lord, if it is so, not only the feet, but the hands and the head." Peter has not understood what Jesus is saying. He is still thinking of ritual purifications
and Jesus says to him, "He who has bathed"—meaning: he who has entered the new water, the water of life that I have come to bring into the world, no longer needs any purification. And you are clean—you are already purified by the Word that I have announced to you, even though one of you has not been purified. Again, the mention of Judas who was about to hand him over. This is the gesture which we have meditated. After this reaction of Peter, comes the life lesson that Jesus wants to give. Jesus wants to make them understand very well what He has done.
Let us listen together and Jesus then tells the disciples:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (Jn 13:12-15).
After the description of the gesture made by Jesus of the washing of the feet, with the reaction of Peter, the evangelist continues with the description of what Jesus did. He put on the robe, the tunic and then returns to the table. And he addresses the disciples and asks: “Do you understand what I just did?” It is not a traditional gesture made at the beginning of the meal as it was the custom to do: to wash the guest’s feet. It was 'during' the supper when Jesus made this prophetic gesture on which He wants the disciples to reflect and understand the meaning.
A meaning that is decisive because it turns the image of God upside down and also the image of who the great man is, the redeemed man. This is why Jesus asks the disciples: Do you understand what I have just done? When Jesus puts on his clothes, he does not take off his towel.
The evangelist has noted all the details and the fact that he does not say that Jesus took off the towel is significant. The towel is the symbol of the service of his humanity—Jesus will continue to serve forever. Service is the currency, the currency of God.
And then he begins to teach the lesson. "You call me master and lord, and rightly so. But if I, who am master and lord, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet." It is the moral interpretation. Peter is the first among the disciples and is the one who has reacted most openly before this new image of God, transforming. What still concerns him is the image of man.
If man should humble himself to God to be great, he must be like Jesus the servant, the one who is always willing to love unconditionally. The washing of the feet is not a gesture of humility made by Jesus.
We must be careful not to minimize this gesture as if Jesus had done an action, only once and is now over ... NO! It is the presentation of his identity. It is the presentation of the identity of God which will not change any more. This is the nature of God. The true dignity of man will be to reproduce this face of the Father of heaven, which shines in the face of Jesus.
And when we read about—not in the Gospel of John, but in the Synoptics– about the institution of the Eucharist, when Jesus says: “Do this in memory of me...” for me to be ready for the Eucharist refers to this gesture of total love where those who are involved in a spousal relationship that is celebrated in the Eucharistic banquet must enter. Jesus concludes his lesson by saying that by doing this they will be blessed if they put it into practice. To be blessed— God congratulates only those who have had a life for others: You are truly my son, you are happy because you have manifested my love to your brothers and sisters. You are blessed.
It is not a matter of conquering merits for paradise in which we enter by this dynamic of love, to be enfolded in the love of the Father of heaven, that love that has been fully manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.
I wish you all a good preparation for the Easter holiday.