It is a most unusual way (to say the least) for a pious Jew to begin a Passover Meal with these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (John 13:21).
But the one who said those words was in fact being incredibly generous. It would have been far more accurate had he said something like this: “Truly I tell you – all of you will betray me. One of you will sell me down the road for thirty pieces of silver. Another will deny me three times before the rooster crows tomorrow morning. The rest of you will run away like chickens with your heads cut off. And only one of you will display the loyalty and courage needed to show up for my murderous crucifixion.”
Despite his awareness of these impending betrayals and each Apostle’s blind and morally shallow vow – “Surely, not I, Lord” – Jesus, with indomitable attention, continued at the Last Supper with his mission to institute the majesty of the Christian Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist – with those who, within a few hours, would be throwing him under the proverbial bus.
Light and Medicine
Jesus’ betrayal is a most powerful mystery for Christians to constantly ponder, as all of us come Sunday by Sunday before the LORD, battered by the potent waves of life and the destructive effects of our own fallen sinful natures. It is good, helpful, and necessary that we recognize in, and admit to one another, that as we come with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, to be joined at the holy Table, we arrive there weary from the scars of life.
That is why Jesus’ actions and words during the Last Supper are so significant, not just as history, but as light and medicine. The way Jesus prepared the Apostles to recover from the massive scandal of their betrayal always informs the Church Universal of her brokenness and disunity and provides for her hope and direction in her continuous (see Matthew 28:16-20) and divinely appointed mission.
As we read in the Gospel of John (13:1-15), at the beginning of the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of Judas, Peter, and the rest of the Apostles, despite the soon to be evident cowardly lack of courage and loyalty on their part. Often the significance of this prophetic act of Jesus is reduced to an example of humble service, of the willingness to do the dirty work in caring for others. But, as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), in the second volume of his masterful work Jesus of Nazareth (published in 2011), said, Our Lord’s action in the washing of feet is more profoundly about the need for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus washes the Apostles’ feet because they have been infected by the filth of the world. Pope Benedict points out that Jesus does not wash their hands and heads because (like every regenerate Christian) the body has already been spiritually bathed in the waters of Baptism. In John’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus is portrayed as symbolically cleansing the Apostles of their sins. He was showing the need for their eternal souls to be cleansed, and not specifically the necessity for the soles of their feet to be washed. Such mercy, Joseph Ratzinger would say, is at the very foundation of the institution of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
This mercy Christ shows, however, is not a license to return to corruption. Quite to the contrary: rather, it is the needed help to symbolically pare off one’s feet or hands if they habitually lead one to sin. But it also shows that Jesus was utterly prepared for the betrayals he would suffer even from those closest to him – and that in the perfect sovereignty of God’s Divine Providence even those betrayals would be used for the good.
For example, Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail and that after his sin he would strengthen his brothers. Thus, we read in the Gospel of Luke (22:31-32): “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Indeed, reconciled to Our Lord after his Resurrection, all eleven of the remaining Apostles were to become impeccable messengers (even to death themselves) of the truth that forgiveness of sins (any sin) is always possible.
The Gifts of the Last Supper
Jesus’ merciful love, manifested in his washing of the Apostles’ feet, as Benedict XVI has written, is the “basin in which he cleanses us.” This need to be completely dependent on Jesus’ mercy and love is meant to be continued in the life of the Church Catholic, Christ’s Body on earth, as sacrament and example, received and shared: for there is still much filth to be washed clean in this broken world.
The second great gift of Jesus during the Last Supper is his prayer. In his “High Priestly Prayer” (John 17), he explicitly prayed for the Apostles and for those who would come to believe in him through their ministry, that they would be protected from the evil one, preserved in the Father’s name, consecrated in the Truth, and perfected in unity. These prayers of Jesus have no expiration date. The ascended Jesus in glory is doubtless praying at this very moment that all baptized members of his holy Church will cooperate with the sure efficacy of those petitions – just as the first Apostles and other disciples obviously did.
The third great gift is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to send to convict us concerning our sin and need for redemption, to lead us to all Truth and remind us of everything he taught. The greatest of this gift is manifested in Jesus’ statement that it was better for him to go so that the Spirit could come (see John 16:5-15): Therefore, we read in John (16:7): “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
This gift is so powerful that the same eleven men who left the Upper Room on Holy Thursday night only to betray Jesus would be sent forth as new creations (see 2 Corinthians 5:17) some fifty-plus days later (after the Feast of Pentecost); and, consequently, set the world on fire and forever change it with the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The fourth and final gifts given at the Last Supper are those of Jesus which forever challenge his disciples. Jesus challenges us to love others as he loves us, to the point of laying down our lives. Jesus said this: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus Christ summons us to reciprocate his friendship. He called us to abide by his charity, in his Word, and in his commandments: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Beloved, these are tall orders, but Jesus never calls us to anything without providing us with the ability and all grace necessary to achieve it.