“He was only at his best when things were at theirs.” Years ago,when I first read those words, applied I think to some King of England orPrince of Wales, they struck me as a very harsh criticism indeed,particularly of an Englishman. After all, this was the land where, accordingto Kipling, a fellow was supposed to prove his mettle by keeping his headwhen everyone around him was losing theirs. “Then you will be a man, myson.”
We all admire people who perform admirably in a crisis. I rememberbeing impressed by General Kutuzov in War and Peace. According toTolstoy, in the chaos of battle, the orders of even a good commander arenot obeyed. A commander’s real role is to sustain everyone’s confidence,by pretending he was about to order what has already happened withouthis direction. In this way, old Kutuzov forced Napoleon to retreat fromRussia.
Outside the pages of books, I’ve had equal admiration for harriedmothers who while trying to do three things at once, are pestered by achild demanding attention. More often than not they manage to musterenough composure to turn to the child with a smile and say, “Yes dear,what is it.” I wonder if even Kutuzov could have achieved that kind ofvictory.
“He was only at his best when things were at theirs.” As soon as Iread the words, I wondered if they described me. I find it easy enough tobe relaxed and affable when things are going well. But let a fewdifficulties arise, perhaps a slight toothache, or a looming deadline, and Ibecome distinctly less sociable and sympathetic.
In light of all this, I am even more astonished by Jesus, as he isrevealed to us in our Gospel today. He is, in effect, a convicted criminal,waiting out his last few hours, before being executed in a particularlyhorrific manner. And as John assures us, our Lord was fully aware of whatwas about to happen to him. Under similar circumstances, I imagine Iwould be cringing with terror in some corner. But Jesus respondsdifferently.
I’m sure, at one time or another, you have been asked the question,”If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do today?”I’ve always thought that it would be great to be able to answer that wewould carry on doing whatever we were doing at the moment, becausepresumably we all realize that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to us, so weought to be doing the right thing all along.
In a sense, this is true of Jesus. In the face of His impending death,He carries on just as He has always done. John tells us, “He had loved Hisown in this world, and He would show His love for them to the end.” Inother words, He just kept on loving.But it is also true that on the night before He died, Jesus did somevery specific things, and naturally, as Christians, we want to pay specialattention to what He chose to do with these last precious hours of Hisearthly life and ministry.
It was the season of Passover, so Jesus’ mind, and the minds of theTwelve, must have been filled with the reading from Exodus that we hearat Mass today about the deliverance of the chosen people out of bondagein Egypt. Each family was to slaughter a year-old male lamb, withoutblemish, and eat its roasted flesh that same night, with unleavened breadand bitter herbs. They were to take some of the blood of the lamb, andmark the doorposts and the lintel of their houses with it. And the blood
of the lamb would protect them from the wrath of God. That day was tobe a memorial feast for the people in every generation. It was to be, forthem, a perpetual institution.
On the night He was betrayed, Jesus established a new covenant, to be celebrated until He comes again in glory. This time, He himself was to be the lamb who was slain. The disciples were to eat His body, and His blood would be our deliverance. It would restore our broken relationship with God, and with one another. Now every Eucharist is a Passover feast.
We can see the wine, and the unleavened bread, but the lamb is there aswell: the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.Then Jesus rose from the meal and took off his cloak. He tied atowel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash anddry his disciples’ feet. Now in the Jewish culture of the time, this was theultimate sign of humility. No one, not even a slave, was required to washthe feet of another, yet Jesus chose to do so in the last moments before His Passion and death.
And consider whose feet He was washing. He knew full well thatthese were men who would run away when the crisis came. Includedamong them were Peter who would deny Him three times, and even JudasIscariot. Reflect on that for a moment. Jesus spent some of the lastminutes of quiet before His Passion, humbly washing the feet of the veryman who would betray Him to suffering and death.
Do you remember when Jesus said of the teachers of His time, dowhat they say, but not as they do? In Jesus, on the contrary, we havesomeone who lives what He preaches. He commanded us to love ourenemies. And on the night He was betrayed, He fed His betrayer with His
body and blood, and washed his feet.
And then Jesus said, “What I just did was to give you an example:as I have done, so you must do.” Why did Jesus give this particularexample at this crucial moment? Perhaps because there was a connectionbetween what He was doing for the Twelve, and what was about to bedone to Him. Among the causes of His impending crucifixion, washumanity’s failure to realize, that however good the intentions of thepeople involved, the conventional wisdom about the exercise of power,
always leads to the violent destruction of the innocent. It is only whenthe Teachers, and Lords, and Masters of the world, choose to get downon their knees and start washing feet, that we will know that the Kingdomhas truly come. Jesus has shown us the way..”
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”