In operas and even in older movies we often hear a musical overture, a sort of overall hint at what was to come musically in the story we were about to be told. Later as one watched the opera or film unfold, one would hear a familiar melody or motif that would tip you off to an important narrative event. We also have movie trailers that give us previews of upcoming films, establishing the very basics of the narrative in order to convince us to go see the entire film for the “rest of the story.” Our Gospel this evening is precisely this: an overture, a trailer for what is to come. What, then, does this overture foreshadow? Jesus will be stripped, humiliated, betrayed, yet all for the sake of those He loves.
We often forget how common crucifixion was in that part of the world; one of the greatest stumbling blocks for Gentile converts to the faith was the fact Jesus was crucified. To everyone who saw Jesus on the Cross it was quite an ordinary thing. However to those who were at the Last Supper, who heard Him speak of His Body being broken and His Blood being poured out “…on behalf of many, for the forgiveness of sins,” (Mt. 26:28) they knew this was no ordinary execution, no common death: this was a sacrifice.
In other words without the Last Supper we do not know the value and meaning of the Cross; without this, His death is merely another execution. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus tells us explicitly what is to come and what it means, but here in John He does something else: He shows us what it means. He models what St. Paul would write later in his letter to the Philippians: “…he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (vv. 7-8) Even St. Peter is taken aback by Jesus’ humiliating gesture of stripping down and scooting across the floor on His knees to wash the feet of His followers. How could the Son of God sink to such a humiliating level? Oh Peter, He will sink further! “…you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Jesus washes only their feet: the Water needed to wash them completely is still stored up within His Heart and has not yet been poured out. He washes their feet not only according to the custom of the time but to foreshadow the washing of sin that was to come, the cleansing of the dirt and mud that has accumulated on our souls as we journey to God, the dirt we carry from “where we’ve been.” The apostles’ “feet” are “clean” save the one that has walked in the steps of betrayal.
Yesterday they all called Him “Lord” save Judas, who called Him “Rabbi.” Today Jesus says, “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” Imagine, then, what an apostle—one who calls Jesus “Lord”—must do! “…then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well,” as St. Peter says. Yes, not only must we imitate Christ’s humility in washing the feet of those we encounter, but just as His humility deepened from mere servitude to the lowest death imaginable, our discipleship must draw us deeper than simply being students of the rabbi or servants of the master. Rather we must be subjects of the Lord, joining Him in the salvation of the whole person, of the whole world. Humble service, yes, but total service, the service Judas could not give, the service to which the other apostles would dedicate the whole of their lives, as Christ dedicated the whole of His.